Playing out as a series of tragically spiralling events, Melina Matsoukas’s QUEEN & SLIM is an engaging character piece rooted in both a momentum-driving premise and the modern experience of the two African-American lead characters (played, ironically, by two Brits). Lena Waithe’s script is observant if a little overwritten at times (resulting in at least one significant misstep), but the chemistry of the leads keeps the film engaging and the keen eye of Matsoukas and her cinematographer Tat Radcliffe keeps it alluring.
The first Tinder date of two people – Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) – does not appear to be going well as the film opens. She seems a bit aloof and he seems too lackadaisical for her. Whilst cordial enough, it seems the relationship will go no further after a lift home for her. However, they get pulled over by a white cop, who is obviously nervous and racist. The police officer opens fire, and the pair end up on the run after killing him in self-defence. The journey takes them across the landscapes of America as they make a run from Ohio, through the US South to Florida, in an attempt to reach Cuba.
Daniel Kaluuya has emerged as one of the best young actors working, with a slightly underseen but brilliant performance in WIDOWS to go with high-profile roles in GET OUT and BLACK PANTHER. He delivers an affable but powerful performance here, elevated by the chemistry with Turner-Smith’s own excellent performance. She provides the more pragmatic and serious character: a working lawyer with a strong sense of her worth and expertise. The manner in which the relationship develops from stilted but amenable towards the seemingly doomed fugitive lovers feels natural. There is not an individual moment that flips a switch, but catalytic moments and a gradual increase in affection as their world grows smaller.
“The visual work is a gorgeous cornucopia of American interiors and landscapes, shot with a deep palette that justifies the decision the shoot on film.”
The film’s script is rich with attempts at symbolism and profound statements, but the more amped-up sections of this script are also what detracts from the film’s message. Writer Lena Waithe clearly seeks to describe the complexity of race relations in the USA (and the reactions to those complexities) with the menagerie of characters that cross paths with Queen and Slim: young and old, black and white, law enforcement and civilian, criminal and law-abiding. At any one point, nobody fits neatly into a stereotypical box. This is largely well done, but the direction some are taken in during extra-curricular subplots are a disservice to the depth that is hinted at.
One key moment is clearly designed to hint at the wider impact of real-life narratives similar to Queen and Slim’s. The script talks of becoming symbols, and there are clear attempts to enact this in the script. However, it is dealt with so fleetingly and haphazardly (also intercut with a sex scene between the leads) that the film cheapens what could be a powerful take-away from the film. In addition, the finale feels like it is forcing emotions in a similar manner. Once again, it is replete with thoughtful symbolism but QUEEN & SLIM seems to lack confidence to let the central conceit and peripheral characters speak for themselves. The script demands a firecracker be thrown in to raise the pulse unnecessarily.
“QUEEN & SLIM seems to lack confidence to let the central conceit and peripheral characters speak for themselves. The script demands a firecracker be thrown in to raise the pulse unnecessarily.”
The visual work is a gorgeous cornucopia of American interiors and landscapes, shot with a deep palette that justifies the decision the shoot on film. This story could easily have taken a more documentary-style presentation, but the visual care adds a degree of poetry even when the script dips from that same level of artistry.
QUEEN & SLIM is a powerful and visually rich story that gets much more right than it does wrong. For all the missteps Waithe’s script seems to take, it still contains engaging, well-conceived characters (major and minor) and the narrative foundations upon which Matsoukas has built a beautiful and varied set of visuals.