I'll start this review with a question that I have a genuine curiosity about: why do so many film directors wind up coming from music video backgrounds?
No really, look it up! Antoine Fuqua, Marc Webb, Jon Dayton/Valerie Faris, Spike Jonze, Floria Sigismondi, and even David Fincher come from backgrounds in music video filmmaking. Granted, I've never gone through the process of making a true feature film, and I will never claim to have proper insight in that world, but it is intriguing to me that so many storytellers in the last number of decades have started out in such a distinct medium, where story and characters are rarely put in the forefront above visual storytelling, atmosphere and, of course, music.
That's one of the reasons why Universal Pictures' 'Queen and Slim' began to catch my eye as the year went on, in that its director, Melina Matsoukas, was making her feature debut on it. The film was being marketed as a pseudo-'Bonnie and Clyde' story from Lena Waithe, best known for her work on Showtime's 'The Chi' and Netflix' 'Master of None (along with a story credit by James Frey, who is a whole other can of worms to explore, fascinated to hear how he got involved). Matsoukas, meanwhile, been spending the better part of the last few decades forming a pretty hefty music video resume, including two Grammy wins for her work on Rihanna and Calvin Harris' "We Found Love," and Beyonce's "Formation."
So with that background in mind (and more than likely, those songs stuck in your head), what do we get from 'Queen and Slim?' Well, in the process of trying to give a distinctly black story the sense of love and energy it needs, Melina Matsoukas has given herself a pretty solid debut to her name. I don't think it's not AS profound it thinks it is, nor is it as well-paced or even well-balanced as it probably should be. But a combination of staggering, enriched visuals, great chemistry between its leads, and a solid sense of purpose that, for the most part, kept me wanting to listen to what it had to say.
Queen (played by Jodie Turner-Smith) goes on a Tinder date with Slim (played by Daniel Kaluuya) to a diner. On their drive back, they are pulled over by an officer (played by Sturgill Simpson) who believes Slim to be driving erratically and begins harassing the two. When Queen attempts to film the encounter with her phone, the officer shoots her, causing Slim to attack the officer, shooting him with the officer's gun in retaliation.
After patching up Queen's wounds, the two decide that the justice system likely won't be in their favor and go on the run. Eventually, the two make an attempt to drive to New Orleans to stay with Queen's uncle, Earl (played by Bokeem Woodbine), in hopes that he may have resources to get them to Cuba, where they can stay outside the eyes of the law.
'Queen and Slim' has a lot of things in its favor, but two really stand out: its dual leads and its direction. I may have issues with how the characters are written (in the first half of the film specifically), but Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith have some excellent chemistry between each other as performers. They work off one another's sensitivities, and there's this great sense the film gives us of levity within a situation that's pretty tense on paper.
From the start, we're given a good jumping-off point to delve into these characters. Queen is a forward, assertive lawyer who knows darn well what she wants and isn't afraid to push buttons to get it, whereas Slim is much more easygoing and adaptive (correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think we ever find out what he did before the incident). As the film goes on, we start to see the roles swapped, almost to say that who people are in times of crisis isn't necessarily who they are, or even the best versions of themselves. It's that kind of dual-focus development that makes these characters feel more alive, and Kaluuya and Turner-Smith give us moments of catharsis and room to breathe throughout the tension the overarching world of the movie provides.
Director Melina Matsoukas also deserves a lot of credit for pacing the relationship, story, and scope the way that she does. She and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe get some widely varied, but nonetheless beautiful images of the duo's journey. Everything from a horse field to a decrepit New Orleans home to a police protest midway through the film are given a sense of depth, color, and vibrancy, it really is something to behold on that level. On top of that, Matsoukas knows that, in a film with our leads on the run, there has to be a consistent sense of urgency, and with this kind of source material being utilized, tension there indeed is.
I would argue that, whereas Bonnie and Clyde before them reveled in their criminal activities, 'Queen and Slim' gives us a movie where that idea is flipped on its head, almost giving a mirror image to white privilege and systematic oppression in America. Even if the film wanted us to buy into Queen and Slim as "the new Bonnie and Clyde" (and it doesn't), the system is tied against them in ways their predecessors could never imagine, and it was one of the ideas that stuck with me the most walking out of the film.
For as much as the film wants us to identify with the sense of fantastical, runaway energy that the film has, it starts to get on my nerves once you examine some of our core characters and their personalities in the midst of the driving event. Yeah, once we dive into the journey Queen and Slim have to take, its not nearly as interesting, or as well-paced as the first act or so. That act had tension, a sense of desperation and dread, and two characters who now have to rely on each other without trusting anyone else.
Yet, I can't help but think that their progression as a couple starts to feel pretty forced, especially in the second half of the film. There's a particularly odd scene juxtaposing a brutal police protest with the duo's sex scene, which in itself occurs soon after they visit the grave of one of Queen's family members. Maybe it's supposed to be showing the sense that one is never truly safe in this environment, or even the opposite, that there's always room for love even in the midst of overwhelming violence. Either way, it's not portrayed very well in terms of the overarching story.
There's a handful of moments that raise some eyebrows, especially in that second half and especially if Matsoukas and Lena Waithe are trying to give a type of fantastical chase story set within black America. To get controversial for a minute as well, I don't think the film is either anti-cop or pro-cop. The story gives us cops who are jerks and cops who attempt to help, and I can't help but wonder if that may split its audience in ways it may not have wanted.
For all of its questionable sensibilities, 'Queen and Slim' wound up sticking in my head a lot more than I thought it would, if not simply for the amount of ideas it tries to deconstruct and examine within its classic narrative. It's not always the most poignant examinations, but it does hold up a mirror to parts of society that feels like it has a distinct purpose and with characters that, for a new generation, might become just as famous as their archetypes, if not for more complex reasons. I may not have loved it this first time around, but I have a feeling that with time it'll find an audience recognizing it for the story that it is, and I might be there cheering it on as well.
Overall, I give 'Queen and Slim' 7.5/10.
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