Queen & Slim: (from left, centered) Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith
The title pair in Queen & Slim (★★★½☆) become outlaws, but they’re not bad people. She’s an idealistic defense attorney, an “excellent” lawyer by her own estimation. He’s a charitable, God-fearing fellow who doesn’t drink, and prizes his family above all else. Young soul rebels, they come to be known as Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), but start out as just two wisecracking Tinder daters, sizing each other up over a diner dinner. Then they’re pulled over by a very bad cop (played by country music star Sturgill Simpson), the stop ends in gunshots, the cop is killed, and the couple flees for their lives.
Someone calls them the “black Bonnie & Clyde,” but if we’re searching for true forebears, Thelma and Louise better fit the bill. Like the road-tripping outlaws in that Oscar-winning feminist drama, Queen and Slim can reasonably claim self-defense. And their cross-country getaway represents a righteous resistance against an oppression both older and more treacherous than the cop that stopped them. The film, an auspicious debut feature from television and music video director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure), wields the pair as avatars in a fight far bigger than Queen and Slim.
That doesn’t mean these otherwise bright, responsible young people don’t make dumb, impulsive moves along the way. Yet, as news of their crimes, and their cause, are spread by the media and internet, they’re soon regarded as folk heroes by some. They encounter criminals eager to help them, and law-abiding folks who’d rather not. The script, by Lena Waithe, based on a story co-written with A Million Little Pieces author James Frey, savvily puts folks of all political and racial persuasions in their path, to argue for and against each potential misstep. One law enforcement officer even appears to believe them when they say they acted in self-defense. Queen isn’t inclined to put much stock in appearances, though.
The filmmakers clearly do understand the importance of aesthetics in creating mythic outlaws. Cinema since Little Caesar, through The Wild One and, of course, Bonnie & Clyde has profited from audiences’ tastes for anti-heroes who talk hot and look cool. Given Matsoukas’ proven eye for color, space, and composition (exhibit A-Z: Beyoncé’s “Formation”), it’s to be expected that the film presents this duo on the run as chic and charismatic examples of black man and womanhood.
Queen & Slim
Supplied with their own blistering soundtrack of fresh hip-hop and R&B, including Ms. Lauryn Hill’s anthemic “Guarding the Gates,” Queen & Slim seem maybe a bit too ready-made for mass consumption. And Waithe doesn’t shy away from using the characters to expound on a checklist of woke talking points, or stage provocations like the incongruous protest that breaks out on the streets of a rural Georgia town where Queen and Slim make a stop for car repairs.
For the sake of subtlety and truth, the film can rely on Get Out Oscar nominee Kaluuya, whose levelheaded alertness and deadpan comic timing transmit Slim’s every fear and discomfort. His and Turner-Smith’s performances bounce off each one another believably as the two strangers bond to become partners-in-crime, and they complement one another in those moments meant to drive suspense. Turner-Smith’s performance, on its own, registers a fairly flat journey from Queen’s initial curtness towards warmth and openness. Arriving at their dinner date nursing profound hurt and outrage over a loss she’d experienced at work earlier that day, Queen reveals herself to be a nearly superhuman badass, and Turner-Smith, also making her feature film debut, doesn’t fully animate this complicated woman’s shifts in attitude. Although, she does credibly put across Queen’s conviction that surrender is off the table.
Matsoukas connects pockets of intense foreboding and bloody gun violence that capture the gravity of what the fugitive lovers have gotten themselves into — but the movie can occasionally peter out in those interludes between major flashpoints. Strong supporting turns by Benito Martinez, Flea, Chloë Sevigny, Pose‘s Indya Moore, and a fast-talking Bokeem Woodbine help keep the tension from going too slack, while providing the chorus of wisdom or street knowledge, aid or reproach that connect each episode in Queen & Slim’s mad dash for an airstrip by the sea. If they make it, they’ll be legends, if they don’t they’ll be infamous, and either way, according to Queen, the state shouldn’t get to decide whether they live or die.
Queen & Slim is rated R, and is now playing in theaters everywhere. Visitwww.fandango.com.
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Queen & Slim
André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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