Queen & Slim
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Queen & Slim is an interesting case of a movie not totally about what it appears to be about, and less compelling when it actually sticks to its plot. It is better in the quieter moments when it focuses on its characters. In those intimate scenes, it hardly seems like we are watching a movie at all. Instead, we are watching two people whose lives as they knew it are over, trying to figure out who they are and what life can be in this new reality. The bigger moments do not always land, the pacing is uneven and attempts to make their story reflect the larger world are sometimes a little awkward. Yet the immediacy of them growing closer as they make sense of the senseless is captivating in a way few movies are. Queen & Slim is flawed, but those flaws serve to illuminate how good it is when it is at its best.
It begins with a man and woman sitting across from each other at a diner. They are on a date after being matched up on Tinder. It is obviously not going well. She only agreed because she did not want to be alone that night and has no intention of making an effort. As he is driving her home, they are pulled over by a police officer. They are black and he is white, so there is immediate tension. Things take a quick turn and the man shoots the cop in self-defense, killing him. Though they are not criminals, they have no choice but to run from the law, which is very unlikely to have sympathy for them.
I suppose the woman is Queen and the man is Slim, however those titles are never uttered and their names are not mentioned until near the end. The man is played by Daniel Kaluuya, an Oscar nominee in 2018 for Get Out. The woman is played by Jodie Turner-Smith, previously unknown to me. They have an odd, unforced, chemistry together, that does not exist initially, sneaking up on them over time. Their performances seem natural, unpolished. There is not a lot of depth to the characters; we do not learn a ton about who they are. Queen & Slim (125 minutes without the end credits) stays in the now, focusing on what they do versus what society believes they are. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are mostly playing ideas, as opposed to fully-developed people. Still, they pack so much humanity into their portrayals that they make them feel more filled in than they truly are.
Part of that also comes from the screenplay by Lena Waithe. Waithe, who won an Emmy in 2017 for writing an episode of Netflix’s Master of None and created the Showtime drama The Chi, is one of the more interesting voices currently writing for TV/film. Here, she gives her leads plenty of opportunity for small talk, helping to establish not only the world being designed for the two of them, but also the one that set up their situation in the first place. It generally just seems like people talking, which I mean as a huge compliment. Their conversations can be tense, witty, charming, emotional and combative. The purpose seems to have been to make them relatable by not making them too specific. That approach works well here. Waithe has created two characters who feel like anyone, bringing a truth to the society around them.
Director Melina Matsoukas alternately makes the story about their relationship, their flight from the law and conflicts between black people and the police. The first are responsible for the best scenes and the second is solid, with good suspense. The third is where Queen & Slim’s issues come from. Video of the shooting is released, instigating additional problems between police and black citizens. This impacts the journey of the protagonists and effects those they meet along the way. It adds a scope that definitely brings it some of its power. It also brings in some questions Waithe and Matsoukas are not fully prepared to answer. It starts an intriguing discussion, then leaves it hanging. Most of the time in situations like this, I wish the filmmakers had cut the troublesome material. Here, I wish they had expounded on it. It is fascinating to think about the emotions their actions would trigger in others. I would have liked for it to be explored further.
Queen & Slim is an engaging, powerful, thought-provoking, experience, finding joy even amid tragedy. It is clear everyone involved had something they wanted to say about what it is to be black in America in 2019. When they get that across, this is pretty great. When they do not, it drags quite a bit. They get it across successfully approximately 80% of the time. Traveling with these two is not always a smooth ride, though you can see the talent and skill on display. The message connects often enough to make this a memorable trip.
4 out of 5
Daniel Kaluuya as Slim
Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Screenplay by Lena Waithe