Director: Melina Matsoukas Starring: Jodie Turner-Smith, Daniel Kaluyaa, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny Running Time: 132 minutes
The first thing I noticed about Queen and Slim was the theatrical poster. I was coming out of a cinema and was taken aback by the aesthetics of the gritty garage backdrop, contrasted with the glossy greyscale shine. While Daniel Kaluuya played a crime boss in Steve McQueen’s Widows, it was the first time he came off as a true “tough guy” to me. While intrigued as to the plot, I decided to keep prior research to a minimum and walk into Queen and Slim with a blind eye.
There are three initial things to say about this film. Firstly, it’s visually brilliant. Secondly, it’s musically brilliant. Thirdly, neither of these achievements should come as any surprise. While it’s a feature film directorial debut from Melina Matsoukas, she’s extremely well seasoned in directing music videos. Boasting hits like Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and Beyonce’s “Formation” in her previous accolades, it’s no wonder that she delivered on these aspects of an impressive first attempt at a full-length film.
The story’s not so bad either. It’s a simple plot, which has drawn inevitable comparisons to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. While that may or may not be granted, there are important social conditions that mark an important deviation from Arthur Penn’s classic. Bonnie and Clyde was released only three years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson. With white actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway playing the titular roles, there was certainly a niche here to explore the added challenges that a black runaway couple would inevitably face in such a dire situation.
Race, therefore, is an important theme throughout Queen and Slim– but not its defining one. Queen (Jodie Turner Smith) meets Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) on a Tinder date, and it’s an archetypal uneventful first encounter. However, on the ride home, a policeman pulls the pair over and after a violent scuffle caused by the cop, Slim shoots the officer. I’m going to stop short at saying “in self defence”, because I think it’s more appropriate to frame this scene as the first of many ethically ambiguous questions that permeate the rest of this script- without providing any easy answers. With the horrific reality of what could unfold for them after this event, the two go on the run and become fugitives. As a potential audience member, that’s as much as you need to know plot wise. The rest of the story is structured around the couple’s efforts to escape from their impending incarceration (or worse) and numerous characters help them along the way. During these escapades, their once tepid relationship develops into something stronger- as can be expected perhaps. Supporting cast members such as Bokeem Woodbine (Fargo) and Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry) help move the story along with some familiar faces and competent performances, but there’s a sense of tension that’s building as things develop. The question becomes not only one of whether the couple will successfully escape to Cuba, but also whether it would be a satisfactory moral outcome if they do so.
These moral questions are posed throughout numerous scenes and are fleshed out in ways that invest you in the story more. The racial divides are stark here. The white characters seem to consider the fugitives evil cop killers, while the black characters appear to venerate them as potential martyrs. The director is not subtle when invoking the iconography of the current race relations in the United States. This could be seen as a rebuke to the Trump era, but also as an homage to the shootings of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014. These types of events underscored the role of social media in race discourse in America. In the three weeks after Michael Brown was shot, #BlackLivesMatter appeared on social media 58,747 times every day. When the judicial decision not to indict the police offer responsible for Brown’s death was issued on November 25th 2014, the hashtag was used 172,772 times.
While these topics are of course important to discuss, there perhaps isn’t quite enough here that’s been added to the conversation, and it doesn’t seem to have anything original to say about police brutality, and the way racial divisions deepen in the responses. This is a let down in a film which will be labelled derivative on foot of the Bonnie and Clyde comparisons- there’s even a reference to this mid way through (call it meta?).
An observation that’s become more clear on reflection, is that the chemistry between Kaluuya and Turner Smith isn’t quite hitting the mark. Sure, there are some intense scenes, but with a premise so driven by a romantic connection, par in this area isn’t quite good enough. Remember- the first scene is a Tinder date gone wrong. So later parts of the script that attempt to show the growing love between these two just feel slightly contrived.
There is a question of whether this film is trying to be a Romance at the heart of it, as there’s certainly a blend of genres here. In many ways, it’s a mixture of drama, romance, crime, and thriller. There are also some really funny lines delivered too. But you do wonder what Matsoukas is going for here, and that’s a slight disappointment. Sometimes when you blend so many tones, you get a cocktail worth spitting out. Other times, it just seems to work. While it’s certainly not the former, it’s not really the latter either. This film is hard to pin down thematically, and I think it would have benefited from a more lean idea of what it wanted to get across. That goes for the running time too, 132 minutes is too long for this story.
These caveats aside, Queen and Slim has a lot to offer and stands as an impressive feature debut. It gets points and ticks boxes in all the right technical categories, but the substance needed more.(3.5 / 5)
Queen & Slim is in Irish cinemas from January 31st 2020.