It’s hard to imagine another American movie in 2019 that radiates with the fury and frustration that sets “Queen & Slim” ablaze in its opening minutes. Written by Lena Waithe (“The Chi”) and given a striking lyrical gloss by director Melina Matsoukas in her feature debut, this somber meditation on police violence against people of color is a flawed but powerful indictment, as well as a paean to disenfranchised anger. Matsoukas’ fast and furious filmmaking doesn’t always click, but it always crackles with purpose, refashioning the lovers-on-the-lam trope into an emotional black-lives-matter lament, and it deserves to be met on those terms.
At the same time, the characterization of “Queen & Slim” as a “black ‘Bonnie and Clyde’” — called out in the script itself — does a disservice to both ends of that equation. Arthur Penn’s seminal outlaw saga was more of a cultural statement on sex and violence in mass media, whereas “Queen & Slim” uses a similar narrative framework to explore more heartfelt concerns embodied by a very different set of protagonists.
When we first meet Queen (astonishing breakout Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (“Get Out” phenom Daniel Kaluuya), they’re enmeshed in an amiable first date at an Ohio diner. It’s going well: The pair flirt through a harmless conversation about other patrons and the crummy restaurant food before calling it a night; as Slim drives home, a playful Queen tells him not to get his hopes up. So far, so “Before” trilogy — but “Queen & Slim” doesn’t linger in its whimsical romance for long before the darkness overtakes the frame.
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When a police officer pulls Slim over for a busted tail light, the tension kicks in and rises as a flashlight illuminates two baffled dark faces. We know the basics of this sorry saga even before it goes south, but the ensuing moments explode with a harrowing buildup of altercations — the uniformed white man asks the black man to step out of the vehicle, forces him to open his trunk, and pulls out his gun after Slim throws the man a harmless smarmy remark; Queen bursts out of the car, citing her background as an attorney and jumping to Slim’s defense; the officer turns toward her as Slim lunges toward him, and in the ensuing skirmish, the cop winds up dead. Roll credits.
This dynamic setup practically works as a masterful short film on its own terms. However, from that explosive showdown, “Queen & Slim” takes a breather and relaxes into a much quieter sort of movie. Realizing their options are limited, Queen guides them to a hiding spot at the drab home of her uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), where they lay low as the media reports pile in. Earl, a crude, hot-tempered troublemaker who has his own history with the law, suffers from a shrill, one-note quality that strikes an immediate contrast to the measured outlaws on his doorstep. That issue plagues “Queen & Slim” throughout, as so many of the figures that the characters meet in their ensuing journeys feel like they’ve been reverse-engineered to suit the allegorical agenda in play.
However, the uneven narrative is ultimately balanced by a simmering undercurrent of cultural indignation. Yes, Waithe’s script seems so eager to zip into the dilemma that it leaves the characters of Queen and Slim in a half-developed state as it rushes through a string of new developments, and doesn’t deepen their personalities much as the story goes on. But that becomes less of a concern once the drama grows much bigger than the inadvertent bond they share.
News coverage from the dash cam of the killing reveals the couple’s innocence, if not their exoneration, and soon their stardom takes on a paradoxical dimension: Cop killers in the press, victims to angry communities around the country, and heroes to a growing number of people who see their escape in symbolic terms, Queen and Slim mean something to everybody. The actors work overtime to make the unlikely events hold together. Kaluuya, whose wide-eyed exasperation and wry smile always make him worth watching, embodies the clash of ambivalence and involuntary celebrity at the center of the movie — but it’s Turner-Smith who stands out as a true revelation, exhibiting ferocious survival instincts in tandem with convictions about their right to keep moving ahead.
The movie is on its sturdiest footing when exploring the way repressed outrage can find catharsis in the fantasy of lashing out. In a wondrous sequence that finds the pair seeking help from a black mechanic, they wait out his work while wandering by the water with the man’s admiring child, who looks up to their nascent legacy. The dialogue drifts into Malickian voiceover as cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s lyrical imagery transforms the exchange into a hypnotic meditation on black dreams undercut by a system that gives them no hope beyond the potential to romanticize their struggle. (There’s a touch of “Moonlight” here as well.) When Queen and Slim find themselves in an all-black nightclub, where the patrons allow them to have a nice time, it’s almost as if the movie has entered into a dreamlike fantasy in which the solidarity of the black community knows no bounds.
The dream can only last so long. As the scope of “Queen & Slim” continues to expand, the filmmakers can’t keep a handle on the unwieldy metaphorical quality of the material, as a steamy sex scene cross-cut with anti-police rioting overstates the message even by the movie’s own blunt terms. One big twist — a fresh act of violence designed to stir up further debate — strains credibility and seems at odds with the circumstances leading up to it, as does a final tragic betrayal. Even when it stumbles, however, the emotion holds strong. “Queen & Slim” has been engineered to provoke reactions that draw viewers further into its thorny discourse on the maddening state of black life in America, and what it takes to find a proper outlet across the country.
To that end, it’s a spiritual sequel to the dueling quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. that close out “Do the Right Thing,” with one characterizing the way forward in violent protest, and the other calling for peace. “Queen & Slim” doesn’t find new answers so much as it sits at the center of that same problem with a vivid fixation on solidarity — a plea to anyone who can relate to its concerns to recognize that they aren’t alone in that struggle.
Even as “Queen & Slim” asks tough questions, it struggles to fuse them together into a singular whole. It may not be proper for this non-black, half-Colombian writer to fully assess the success of its messages. But “Queen & Slim” certainly joins a robust narrative trope by confronting an ongoing division that American society has yet to figure out. From “Fruitvale” to “Monsters and Men” and “Blindspotting,” this decade has seen plenty of potent attempts to turn the persecution of people of color into a new kind of cinematic rage. “Queen & Slim” embodies a troubling historical moment not in spite of its puzzling twists and messy circumstances, but because of them. No matter the embellishments at hand, we’ve seen this story before, and it’s disgraceful as ever.
“Queen & Slim” premiered as the opening night film at the 2019 AFI Fest. It opens in theaters on Friday, November 27.