Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim tries really hard to be an important film and mostly succeeds in being one. The story of two individuals on the run from the inherently racist justice system is powerful if a messy film, but perhaps all the better for its chaotic messiness.
The titular Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (magnetic Daniel Kaluuya) are on their first date. Queen is a cynical lawyer whose client was executed earlier that day and she craved company while Slim is a sympathetic everyman just in it for the hope of a little romance.
When Slim is pulled over for failing to use the turn signal and swerving on the road, things get ugly. The racist cop takes things too far, shoots Queen in the leg and Slim shoots him with the cop’s own gun, while everything is recorded on the cop car’s dash cam. The two are now considered dangerous outlaws and they make a run for it, knowing that despite the shooting being self-defense the American justice system won’t see it that way because of the colour of their skin.
The scene which kickstarts the narrative is a tense watch. The racist cop, played by Sturgill Simpson, feels too close to real life and the scene is filmed and constructed believably. The tension here is palpable and despite knowing how the scene plays out, from trailers and just by cinematic law, it doesn’t stop you from worrying and fearing for the pair. How many horrors will they have to face on the side of that road before the fatal shooting happens?
Queen & Slim is a passionate film. It’s cool and visually gorgeous, but beneath it all beats an angry, furious heart. It’s a character study masked with a Bonnie & Clyde -type narrative, but its perspective is different. Bonnie and Clyde were criminals, they committed real crimes and to an extent, the film romanticises the outlaw life, whereas Queen and Slim haven’t committed a crime. They have killed a man, but that man shot an innocent woman in the leg first when she attempted to record his illegal behaviour. Somehow, Queen and Slim are forced to go on the run, fearing for their lives. If they won’t be shot on sight, they are almost guaranteed the death penalty in court.
The film probes the audience to ponder what they see in the dashcam footage, shown us throughout the film and how they perceive Queen and Slim? Are they innocent, guilty because they fled or guilty because Slim killed a man? The most obvious question is, what if they were white? The answer is equally obvious, they would have never been in that situation in the first place or at least, the situation would have never gone that far. In the age where police killing unarmed black men and women has become an almost everyday news story, Queen and Slim feels political and timely.
Its timeliness is also its weak point. Lena Waithe’s script tries so hard to be important and have quotable moments, it loses sincerity in the process. Scenes feel disjointed and lacking something vital to string everything together neatly and coherently. Some of the dialogue and scenes don’t feel organic, despite the best efforts of Kaluuya and Turner-Smith.
Kaluuya, a seasoned and acclaimed actor does better at making the dialogue feel real and natural. Turner-Smith, who is a little less experienced, struggles with some of Waithe’s dialogue, but turns in otherwise committed and ferocious performance as Queen. The pair’s chemistry carries the entire film, which places character interaction above narrative turns. There isn’t much plot to Queen & Slim, the film is more of a quilt made out of strong character moments. It works both against and in favour of Matsoukas’ film.
Individual scenes and moments pack a mighty punch, even if the film never quite comes together as a coherent effort to bring Black Lives Matter to the screen once again. Matsoukas’ direction is passionate and fierce, every scene brimming with purpose and power. It’s messy, but it’s messy because of clear passion and that passion comes through in every frame, every song and every look Queen and Slim share. The ending is emotional and powerful because of its inevitable nature. We, along with Queen and Slim, spend two hours trying to escape the truth we already know, but it still hits you like a ton of bricks.
Queen & Slim is a meaty film, which will benefit from discussing and dissecting it with other people. There is much here to be said about the status of Queen and Slim as symbols for a larger movement and how detached they are from it. Scenes of a violent protest are juxtaposed with images of Queen and Slim having sex feels like it should be powerful, but it comes across a little clumsy and misinformed. The film doesn’t quite find a good balance tonally, mixing humour with despair with uneven results. Despite its flaws, Queen & Slim is a powerful film well worth seeking out.
Dir: Melina Matsoukas
Scr: Lena Waithe
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine
Prd: Pamela Abdy, Andrew Coles, James Frey, Michelle Knudsen, Melina Matsoukas, Lena Waithe, Brad Weston
DOP: Tat Radcliffe
Music: Devonté Hynes
Country: Canada – USA
Runtime: 132 min
Queen & Slim is released in UK cinemas January 31st.