Queen & Slim
2019, R, 132 min. Directed by Melina Matsoukas. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Bertrand E. Boyd II, Sturgill Simpson, Jahi Di’Allo Winston.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 29, 2019
Queen & Slim artfully weaves together a lovers-on-the-lam crime story with very trenchant Black Lives Matter thematic content. It is a perfect movie for our times. It grabs you by the scruff during its flawless opening sequences and never lets go, despite some episodic contrivances that occasionally cause it to feel overplotted. A killer soundtrack nevertheless carries the film through some of the weaker moments, leaving us in ultimate thrall to these accidental cop killers-cum-pop-culture heroes.
The film opens in a Cleveland diner as a man and a woman navigate a lackluster Tinder date. Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya is the Slim mentioned in the title, and model-turned-actress Jodie Turner-Smith is the Queen (although these sobriquets are never used in the course of the movie). He’s a hardworking Christian and she’s a criminal defense lawyer. In the car while driving home, a small swerve by the vehicle causes them to be pulled over by an aggressive policeman. Slim complies with the cop’s orders while his lawyer companion bristles at the racist treatment and winds up shot in the leg. Then, in the flash of a moment, there’s a struggle during which Slim kills the cop in self-defense. In another flash of a moment, Queen insists there is no other option but for them to go on the run.
From there, the movie takes off in stolen cars down toward New Orleans, where Queen has an uncle (Woodbine) who she believes will help them. From there to Florida and then to Cuba is their desperate hope. Along the way, the public notoriety elevates the duo to folk-hero status, at least within the black community, where they’re compared with Bonnie and Clyde. The film’s getaway scene shot through the back window of a moving car, however, will surely evoke memories of Joseph H. Lewis’ low-budget noir classic Gun Crazy. (Credit should be given to cinematographer Tat Radcliffe for effective camerawork here as well as for the evocative rural Americana viewed through car windows.)
Queen & Slim was written by Emmy winner Lena Waithe (The Chi, Master of None) from an idea suggested by James Frey (A Million Little Pieces, the veracity of which caused a dustup with Oprah, you may recall). Waithe has found a way to blend tropes of classic crime cinema with modern concerns, although the film’s abundance of peripheral characters and details may be the result of Waithe’s background in episodic television. The film also slows down for some lovemaking and sharing of deep secrets, with occasional voiceovers that seem to come from some other, tonally different movie. The movie marks a spellbinding feature debut for the film’s director, Melina Matsoukas, whose career so far has been limited to the direction of dozens of music videos (many of them shot for Beyoncé, including the much-heralded “Formation”) and some TV episodes. It’s likely that Queen & Slim will be remembered as much for her above-the-title breakout as for the film itself.