We’ve all had Tinder dates that have taken a wrong turn. But in Melina Matsoukas’ mostly-riveting romantic-thriller, Queen & Slim, this is a date that goes south.
In the past decade, there have been a slate of important films that have shined a spotlight on the history of racial tensions in this country. This year, we saw the congenial updating of Driving Miss Daisy in Green Book win Best Picture of the year.
There has also been Spike Lee’s intrusive and important film, BlackKklansman. And we will never forget the nightmarish images from Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. There is right now Les Miserables which will be the French Oscar submission that turns the relationship between Black kids and police into a claustrophobic horror film.
But I don’t think I have seen a film that is unapolgetically pro-Black and take a Thor hammer (Mjölnir) to the treatment of African Americans by police the way Melina Matsoukas’ debut stylish romantic drama, road film Queen & Slim does.
It’s an important film. A win for sure. It is the best film, in recently memory, to throw the book out about race relations between African Americans and police since Spike Lee’s 1989 opus, Do the Right Thing.
But not without its share of problems.
The film opens with Queen (hypnotic newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) who is a defense attorney on a date at a somewhat run down diner with Slim (Get Out and Black Panther’s Daniel Kaluuya). He’s a sneaker salesman at Costco and drives a Honda that sports a vanity plate that says, “Trust God.”
After mentioning that she is coming off of a bad day where her client was sentenced to the death penalty, Queen skeptically questions why they are at this diner with crappy food for a first date. Her question ponders if Slim is cheap. Kaluuya, demonstrating a growth in his acting, answers with two words that says a mouthful, “Black-owned.”
On the way home from this basic and uneventful (and probably there won’t be a second) date, the two are pulled over by cop. He is, of course, suspicious, white and trigger happy.
Realizing the precarious situation they are suddenly in, a tense Slim complies with all of the officer’s demands.
Queen, however knows their rights, and after just losing a client to a corrupt system, has a few choice words for the officer, angering him. The scene is reminiscent of Paul Haggis’ 2004 drama Crash when Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton are also bothered by Matt Dillon’s corrupt cop.
Things go south really fast when the cop, growing angrier, begins to wave his gun. He shoots Queen in the leg. Slim knocks him to the ground, grabs his weapon and well…
The unassuming shoe salesman from Costco is suddenly transformed into a cop killer. The two are off and running as the 2019 African-American version of Bonnie and Clyde as they try to drive to Florida to escape to Cuba.
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As the film progresses, and with the country’s law enforcement after them, the two explore their growing love for each other and become folk heroes to African Americans around the country.
And that’s where the problems with the film begin. If Matsoukas, a powerful video director known for Beyonce’s Lemonade video, had made this a short film ending with the cop killing, there is no doubt that development execs around LA would want a feature version.
However, the feature version we have, at times swerves from the lane of intense, nonsensical and indulgent. Granted Queen & Slim is a romantic drama, and shouldn’t be a Terminator-laced film of tension.
But, hello? The entire country is after them.
So, when the film pauses for the two to ride horses in a pasture, Matsoukas’ understanding of a chase film loses credibility. Matsoukas is going for a quiet intimate scene, but it needs to be broken by what is at hand – they are on the run. The stakes have been severely raised, but the two don’t respond as two people… two BLACK PEOPLE… on the run would.
Yes, the film has to have quiet moments such as when they stop off for a date at a small roadside bar, but don’t lose the great tension that has been built.
Other gripes. Matsoukas gives us a subplot involving a teenage zealot that feels rushed and, quite frankly, forced. Yes, it’s to demonstrate the country’s growing love for the two, but when Matsoukas intercuts between what the teen does at a protest and our heroes making passionate love on the side of the road, it feels forced and out of place.
When the film moves (not quite sure why) into a Terrence Malik styled voice over, it really takes one out of the film as the ADR is not that good.
Matsoukas and cinematographer, Tat Radcliffe, give us many powerful images on the screen, especially the climax, but weakens the story by including some that are just unnecessary and feel indulgent. And it makes us the audience struggle with the tonal shifts.
The message in the screenplay by Lena Waithe (The Chi, Master of None) is powerful, angry and often insightful. The dialogue between Queen and Slim feels genuine and real, making us like and root for them.
At a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes (could have been cut down), the film never runs out of gas and that is due to performers Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith.
From the start at that crappy diner, we root for the two. We want them to get together and we desperately (with a knowing sinking feeling) want them to make it to Cuba – “…to escape the white America,” as Queen puts it.
Both Kaluuya and Turner-Smith inhabit their characters beautifully and truthfully, and we enjoy their own personal road trip from one and done dates to ride or dies.
3.5 Ball Point Pens out of 5. So says the Geek.