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Queen & Slim retells the Bonnie and Clyde myth as a story about blackness in America

Americans love the legend of doomed young lovers on the run. In Queen & Slim, that love gets reexamined.

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen & Slim.
Queen & Slim reinvents the Bonnie and Clyde myth — and quietly critiques its history.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Smith-Turner in a tale of young lovers on the run, invites comparisons to the story of Bonnie and Clyde from the drop. It’s the tale, sometimes bloody, of two doomed young lovers on the run from the law — a familiar American archetype.

But if Queen & Slim is consciously playing with that story, it’s also subverting it. The real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were thieves and criminals who captured national attention in the early 1930s, the press telling breathless (and sometimes souped-up) stories of their swaggering exploits. They died in an ambush on May 23, 1934, at the ages of 23 and 25, respectively, and their deaths became the seeds of a legend.

The story has been retold on screen and in song many times since then, and always with an edge of revolt. Prominent directors have taken a crack at it, remixing the facts to tell their own tale: Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1950), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994, from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino), Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994), and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) all trace their origins back to Bonnie and Clyde in one way or another.

That’s not a comprehensive list (which would probably be impossible to compile), but they’re the most notable adaptations. And another trait these films share in common is that this glamorous, murderous American duo, no matter how much the details change in every retelling, has long been lodged in our national imagination as being white. Hollywood tells very different stories about being black, armed, and pursued by police.

Which isn’t to say that it hasn’t been told as a black story before — maybe most famously by Jay-Z and Beyoncé in “‘03 Bonnie and Clyde,” which became the highest-charting song about the pair. It’s a song about glamour and young love, with Jay-Z rapping through the verses (“Put us together, how they gon’ stop both us?”) and then trading lines with his then-girlfriend Beyoncé on the chorus: “All I need in this life of sin is me and my girlfriend / Down to ride ‘til the very end, is me and my boyfriend.”

And it wasn’t the first time Jay-Z had rapped about Bonnie and Clyde; in 1999, he featured on Foxy Brown’s track “Bonnie & Clyde, Part II,” which presents itself as the couple planning a robbery and pledging to die for one another if needed, though maybe they’ll hit it big instead: “You my Clyde for life / I’m your Bonnie like this / I can see us gettin’ rich like this.”

But Queen & Slim is nothing like either of those versions — though it was directed by Melina Matsoukas, who until now may be best known for directing Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. With a screenplay by The Chi’s Lena Waithe, this version of the Bonnie and Clyde tale stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as two Clevelanders who meet at a diner for a Tinder date and don’t particularly hit it off. But on the way home, they get pulled over, and the police officer — who, it later turns out, had shot a black man several years ago in a similar circumstance — ends up getting shot by accident instead. The pair panic and take off together, virtual strangers forced into a familiar framework.

Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, which starred Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the pair in a sexy, sometimes shockingly violent romance, became a rallying cry for disaffected countercultural youth. But in that film and others, Bonnie and Clyde court and enjoy the notoriety that media attention brings to them; they’re the symbols of alluring danger, of youthful rebellion.

Not so much for Queen and Slim. They don’t want to be the face of anything. Yet they live in a tinderbox America, ready to flame, and as their faces begin to appear on the news as the subjects of a nationwide manhunt, they become the symbol of something much different than other Bonnies and Clydes. They’re not icons of generational revolt. They’re the face of frustration with police violence and a world where having to shoot in self-defense will never suffice as an explanation, not if you’re black.

And so they become a symbol for the watching nation of triumphing over trauma, even as they don’t feel particularly triumphant. Waithe told Entertainment Weekly that the film is “a rebel cry,” but that it’s also about the trauma she feels watching the news: “I think when people hear about black people being killed by cops, they know that it’s sad, they know that it’s not right. But as a black person, there’s no one there to hold my hand. There’s no one there to rub my back and tell me that I’m okay, that we’re going to be okay.”

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Smith-Turner in Queen & Slim.

It’s a subversive and powerful way to retell the Bonnie and Clyde myth for a new era — but also to reexamine what that myth has meant (something that Thelma and Louise’s feminist retelling did as well). It was possible to shade the story of a gun-toting white couple on the run from the law as glamorous and electric, a symbol of freedom and rebellion on the open road. But in the American imagination, that pair always had to be white, even if all the other details were fictionalized. To make them black would be to imbue the story with some other element, some fear that white America has chosen to tell in very different sorts of movies.

Queen & Slim turns that on its head, without getting too explicit about what it’s doing; it’s still at core a moving doomed love story about two real people stuck in an unfair situation they can’t escape. It’s a Bonnie and Clyde tale worth telling today — not just for how it calls back to our past, but how it dwells with our uncomfortable present.

Queen and Slim opens in theaters on November 27.

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