Queen & Slim Review
One of the greatest missteps any film can make is to constantly remind the audience of a better film that they could be watching instead. This might not be the biggest flaw with Queen & Slim, the directorial debut of prolific music video director Melina Matsoukas, but it’s certainly the most inescapable - stacking up the winking references to Bonnie and Clyde, but in doing so, reinforcing just how much this will remain comfortably in that film’s shadow.
Which is a shame, because on paper, Queen & Slim should be incredibly timely, taking the “lovers on the run” formula and applying sharp commentary on racist police brutality towards innocent African Americans. But for large portions of the running time, the screenplay by Lena Waithe shies away from any socio-political themes whatsoever - the narrative stakes proving increasingly inconsequential as we’re guided through a highly stylised tour of rural America. It’s the perfect showreel for Matsoukas, with scenes often feeling like music videos stripped of their song choices, but the most insubstantial way of telling a story that should be more tense, angrier, and in possession of a sharp political bite.
It’s the Tinder date from hell; two uninterested parties in an Ohio diner, struggling to hide the little they have in common. They are Angela "Queen" Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Earnest "Slim" Hines (Daniel Kaluuya), and if things went to plan, they would never see each other again - but on the drive home, they’re pulled over by a violent white police officer, who they end up killing. Driving from the scene, they know they are wanted criminals and can’t return to their home life, so start a whistle-stop tour of the American south en route to Florida, where they plan to flee to Cuba. They may be evading being caught by the police, but their status as a modern day Bonnie and Clyde means they’re recognised everywhere they drive.
It’s this last plot point that proves to be the central problem. After a tense opening act, the film changes gears to become a road trip movie, but one where the established narrative stakes are placed in the background - heard infrequently over news reports on the car radio, or conversations with people they pass, but rarely as a source of narrative tension, let alone any weightier discussion on racism in America. We occasionally cut to protests demanding the pair be freed from the police chase, but even these feel like an afterthought. In one particularly offending moment, Matsoukas cuts from the protest to the lead characters having sex in a car; only in the moments that could conceivably appear in one of her music videos does she feel comfortable, and these are all in rather stark contrast to the overarching subject matter.
Admittedly, this is also flaw of Lena Waithe’s screenplay (based, somewhat inexplicably, on a story idea by controversial author James Frey). It’s flawed on two levels; the refusal to go beneath the surface in its political themes, and the insistence on stock archetypes as we go deeper into the heart of America. Waithe is a polarising figure for a number of reasons, but her screenplay here only gives fuel to her detractors, simplifying the politics and the characterisations down to the cinematic equivalent of a hashtag.
Queen & Slim is released in UK cinemas on January 31st