[Review] ‘QUEEN & SLIM’ – Better to surrender than expect a black Bonnie & Clyde

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

QUEEN & SLIM

Rating R, 132 minutes.
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Cast: Daniel KaluuyaJodie Turner-SmithBokeem Woodbine, Flea and Chloë Sevigny

QUEEN & SLIM suffers from an identity crisis. Is it the “black BONNIE & CLYDE” as the advertisements promote it to be, or a road movie where our lawless lovers are seen as innocents in the eyes of black America?

The inability to decide is part of the movie’s problem. Melina Matsoukas’ drama is about a Tinder swipe that leads to a bad first date between a black woman and man – the eponymous Queen (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) – at a local diner that turns into a nightmare when a traffic stop leaves a police officer killed in self-defense. The shooting was justified (Slim’s, not the cop’s initial discharge), but because they are black and the cop is white, there is no such thing as justice. They decide to run.

What follows next is an episodic journey from the cold streets of Cleveland to the heat and humidity of the deep south as they travel the backroads to New Orleans before heading east through Georgia and the state of Florida. Along with their travels, Queen & Slim are met with friendly faces. Queen’s PTSD-stricken and pimp uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine stealing his limited screen time) gives them a new car and threads. The bartender at a Georgia blues club pours them bourbon on the house. Junior, the son of a cantankerous mechanic, has been drawn in by the news coverage of the manhunt and is honored to meet them. He later snaps a photo of the outlaws that would define their legacy.

Throughout their escapades, Queen & Slim remain oblivious to what is happening in America. They have ditched their smartphones and avoid the news. The nation has split. Protests ensue. Some paint them as outlaws. Others, like Junior, have romanticized them as folk heroes. A rage is building, but we only see fragments.

Matsoukas’ career making music videos for the likes of Beyonce and Rhianna are driven by their color and imagery. And while there are some striking images to be seen in QUEEN & SLIM, the story can’t measure up to the visuals. Everything comes across as a contradiction. Let’s start with the characters. Slim is a take-it-as-it-is religious young man – his license plate reads “TRUSTGOD” – and can easily forgive the waitress that screwed up his order. He also doesn’t believe in fate. Queen has a confrontational personality. Pairs well with her job as a defense attorney. She doesn’t believe in the lord, yet later on, says grace before eating a meal. She is the more educated of the two but argues running from the law is for the best in a worst-case scenario. Slim doesn’t drink, but later has a shot of bourbon. The contradictions continue in those they come across and their actions. A couple that offers safe harbor to Queen & Slim at Earl’s request is the Shepherds. They’re also white.

Even the film’s title raises questions. Queen & Slim are Angela and Ernest. Also, though we don’t learn their names until the end of the film, we blindly associate them as Queen & Slim because that’s just who they have to be. It’s right there in the title! And yet they are not called by those names.

So many contradictions that writer Lena Waithe must rely on contrivance for a tale where she waxes paradoxically in developing the narrative (which got an assist from James Frey, of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES literary infamy) and our fugitive heroes. Rationality has no place in QUEEN & SLIM. For lovers on the lam, who are recognized everywhere they go, they appear in no danger. The couple still finds time to stop and ride a horse, take turns hanging out the window as they cruise along the coast, and make love in a scene that matches sex with violence.

Stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith look good next to each other, though their chemistry fails on a lack of familiarity. Over six days, we are supposed to be all in that these two would go from the first date fail to a ride-or-die couple. That’s a big leap that I can’t buy. Nor should one mistake QUEEN & SLIM as the black version of Bonnie & Clyde. This is a message movie about race and justice that becomes more unclear as they drive east only to see the sunset behind them.

Grade: C+

QUEEN & SLIM is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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