FILM REVIEW: Queen & Slim

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Screenplay: Lena Waithe from a story by James Frey

Director: Melina Matsoukas

There is a tendency, when commenting upon new movies, to make comparisons with past films that seem similar. Indeed at one point the fugitives in Queen & Slim are greeted as ‘’The black Bonny and Clyde’’. But such a reductive approach does not convey the ambition of director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe.

Earnest “Slim” Hines (Daniel Kaluuya) and Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) are both black and meet on an unsuccessful first date. At the end of the evening they are harassed by a white police officer, who, when a scuffle ensues, is killed by Slim acting in self-defense. Fearing they are unlikely to receive fair treatment from the authorities the duo go on the run but when film footage from the dashboard camera hits social media Queen and Slim find they are becoming unlikely legends.

Matsoukas and Waithe do not hide their ambition to make Queen & Slim a political statement rather than a simple road movie/thriller.  The movie is intended as a comment on racial tensions in the USA and the impossibility of black people being treated justly by the white authorities. So as to encourage audience identification the main characters are treated as archetypical ‘everymen’- they are not even named until the closing moments of the film.

Queen & Slim touches on wider social themes. The unhealthy American obsession with guns is reflected in a deeply creepy sequence where Slim is offered free petrol in return for allowing the sales clerk to play with his gun. The ease with which legitimate protest can descend into violence is horrifyingly captured in a scene where a police officer, who is reasoning with a protestor, is gunned down for no apparent reason.

Matsoukas and Waithe do not shy away from the complexities arising from Queen and Slim being regarded as folk heroes. The first person they encounter who expresses such sentiments seems motivated by hate and simply wants vengeance on the world while a youngster who hero-worships the duo pays a very high price.

But if Queen & Slim is high on ambition it is thin of plot and low on tension. Angela is a Defence Attorney yet seems incapable of devising any legal method to solve the crisis and sticks to the bizarre notion of escaping to Cuba. How the film footage of the incident that sparks the crisis comes to be on social media is never explained.  The atmosphere is languid; large parts of the movie comprise little more than beautiful shots of a car driving through charming American scenery. There is little sense of the characters being under pressure or running out of options.

There is little chemistry between Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. The latter takes literally the idea of Queen being an archetype and underplays the role adding little personality to a brittle character. Kaluuya, on the other hand, is a warm human presence very much someone who is out of his depth and struggling to cope with something he could never have anticipated.

Queen & Slim might have worked better with tighter editing to build up tension and help conceal some of the plot shortcomings but remains a sharp political comment on the racial tensions in America.

Released 31 January 2020

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