Producers: James Frey, Lena Waithe, Melina Matsoukas, Michelle Knudsen, Andrew Coles, Brad Weston and Pamela Abdy Director: Melina Matsoukas Screenplay: Lena Waithe Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloe Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson, Indya Moore, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Benito Martinez, Thom Gossom Jr. and Melanie Halfkenny Distributor: Universal Pictures
One might expect a film about two characters referred to, in the picture itself, as a black Bonnie and Clyde, to be energetic, even frenzied. But Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim” is more a lyrical, melancholy cinematic poem, even though it deals with rebelliousness in the age of Black Lives Matter as much as Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic did with reaction against the realities of the Great Depression (or Ridley Scott’s 1991 “Thelma and Louise” addressed feminist rejection of male domination). It certainly has a powerful subject at its core, but suffers from a lack of narrative clarity and an overly dreamy, lethargic tone.
The film starts with a sequence depicting a disastrous first date arranged via Tinder. Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), a bulk-store worker, has brought Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), a haughty lawyer with a penchant for correcting his grammar, to a diner that she obviously considers unimpressive, though she softens when he explains that he frequents it because it’s black-owned. He, on the other hand, is nonplussed when she tells him she wanted some company only because she’d had a bad day, and chose him because in his photo he looked sad. On the drive home, it becomes clear that for her the evening is over and they are unlikely to see one another again.
But then they’re stopped by one of Cleveland’s finest (Sturgill Simpson), a fellow who seems to be spoiling for a fight. Slim reluctantly complies with the cop’s unreasonable demands, but Queen is more assertive, and when she reaches for her phone the lawman fires his gun, wounding her in the leg. That prompts Slim to struggle with him, and the policeman is shot dead with his own pistol.
Slim is inclined to turn himself in and argue self-defense, but Queen persuades him he’d have no chance of staying out of prison, so they go on the lam. After an encounter with a good-natured sheriff (Benito Martinez) after their car runs out of gas on a Kentucky highway, they proceed in his truck to the New Orleans home of Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a drug dealer and pimp who reluctantly puts them up until a local cop (Andre Shanks) shows up. That convinces them to dress up in colorful clothes from Earl’s well-stocked closet and take off in his car, a classic turquoise Pontiac. (They certainly show no concern with being inconspicuous.) They’ll have to get it repaired before long, meeting an admiring teen called Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) as it’s being worked on (he takes a photo of them that, as a postscript shows, becomes emblematic later).
Like virtually all those the duo encounter on their journey, the boy looks upon them as heroic figures who are taking a stand against the oppressive establishment. Most of these supporters are black (like the barmaid at a dance club where they pause for an evening), but some are white, like the activist couple (Flea and Chloé Sevigny) who take them into their home and direct them to a contact (Bertrand E. Boyd II) in Florida who can arrange a flight to Cuba.
If all of this seems episodic and unrealistic, it is. In another sequence, the two stop beside a pasture where horses are grazing, so that Slim can mount one of them—an experience he’s never had before. Elsewhere, in an especially bizarre moment, they stop at a convenience store, where an intense young clerk persuades Slim to let him hold his gun in exchange for allowing him to take some stuff without paying. For a minute it seems that the man will use it on Slim, but the tension quickly evaporates.
In fact, Queen and Slim’s trip comes across as a curiously casual, lackadaisical affair, more gauzy fantasy than actual event. Despite a few news reports and occasional shots of newspaper headlines, Matsoukas doesn’t bother to show the presumably urgent manhunt going on except for one sequence in which Slim calls his father (Thom Gossom Jr.). And the recurrent theme of how they’re embraced as folk heroes reaches a nearly absurd point when, after they’ve made their escape from that supportive white couple’s house (a scene that’s very clumsily staged), they’re allowed to leave by the black cop who was at Uncle Earl’s house earlier, apparently because a white colleague has just called him “boy.” (After all, if he didn’t intend to arrest them, why go looking for them at all?)
The picture does attempt to incorporate a sense of the impact the couple’s growing fame has on people in a sequence showing a demonstration supporting them in which young Junior faces off against a cop—a black one in this case. But even here the impact is blunted by the fact that the scene is juxtaposed with one of sultry lovemaking between Queen and Slim, who by now have gotten very involved (the dance club sequence is also revealing in that regard).
The film ends on a note that can be seen as deeply cynical or simply true to life, but aims to be no less iconic than the one Penn fashioned for “Bonnie and Clyde” and Scott for “Thelma and Louise.” Unfortunately, in this instance it’s so protracted (with a cop yelling “I won’t say it again!” through a bullhorn so many times that it becomes ludicrous) and languid—the slow-mo is a definite mistake—that it doesn’t carry the intended emotional wallop.
Kaluuya offer a skilled, nuanced performance as Slim, and though Turner-Smith can’t make Queen’s transformation from up-tight attorney to committed fugitive entirely credible (and is hobbled by the getup she’s stuck with from Uncle Earl’s closet), she’s at least adequate. Good supporting turns are provided by Woodbine, Winston and Martinez, and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe and editor Pete Beaudreau give the visuals the lustrous, hallucinatory, soft-focused quality and deliberate pacing Matsoukas obviously desired. The score by Devonté Hynes, incorporating a raft of hip-hop numbers, adds to the smoldering ambience. In sum, though there’s much that’s evocative and compelling about “Queen & Slim,” ultimately its treatment of a timely subject lacks the urgency and cohesiveness that might have raised it to the level of the films it will remind you of.