Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
A rousing dramatic thriller about racial profiling and police violence in America, Queen & Slim is a sometimes imperfect vehicle for the issues it raises, yet an ultimately powerful cinematic manifesto, nonetheless. Director Melina Matsoukas – heretofore known for her copious music videos – makes her feature debut with a bang, expertly guiding stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Jodie Turner-Smith (Cinemax’s Jett) to fine performances as a nascent couple on the lam. The script, by Lena Waithe (BET’s Boomerang), advances the plot briskly, mixing humor adroitly into its tale of woe, though it falters in the more sentimental scenes. Whatever the movie’s imperfections, its considerable strengths make it well worth watching.
We first meet the protagonists on a Tinder date, which appears to be going nowhere quickly until a white cop pulls over our African American leads. Rude and brusque, the policeman does not like being questioned on his actions, especially by a confident black lawyer like the woman played by Turner-Smith. Things turn sour with a sudden swiftness, and there are “Queen” and “Slim,” she injured and he holding the gun that just killed the officer. Not good, but also not without significant provocation. Since neither are criminals, nor violent, they have no idea how to proceed, but they know they have to leave, and right away, so off they go, heading south from Ohio to Louisiana, where she has an uncle, hoping that they’ll figure out their options along the way. As they go, their notoriety spreads, and soon they are being hailed as a “black Bonnie and Clyde.”
Or so claims her uncle, incarnated by the amazing, and wildly entertaining, Bokeem Woodbine (Mike Milligan on Season 2 of FX’s Fargo). He is just one of the many interesting supporting characters who populate this exploration of how black America sees its place in the country. Vibrant, independent, and hardly monolithic, these folks live lives casually denigrated by the people in charge. Queen and Slim never have a chance.
For a while, however, they have quite an adventure. Though they start out sans much mutual appeal, by the end they are soulmates. As fugitives, they find their calling, becoming symbols to a nation in turmoil. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are the heart and soul of the picture; beyond Woodbine, the ensemble includes the equally engaging Indya Moore (FX’s Pose) and Melanie Halfkenny, among others. When the film focuses on the journey, it moves; when it turns instead to romance, it veers off course, such as in a strange bout of parallel editing between lovemaking and a riot, which does not work. Still, enough does work that it functions as a fierce clarion call to clean up our act. Will we heed that call? We can start by seeing this fine film.