Queen & Slim is a fascinating cinematic journey on multiple levels. Not every aspect is successful, but the different messages conveyed have significance. An easy and simplistic generalization would be to describe the film as a black Bonnie & Clyde; two lovers on the run from the law are embraced by the public. Queen & Slim is so much more. It is an unabashed love story, a cultural awakening, and an arrow to the heart of a divisive societal issue. Police brutality is explored through a black lens. Queen & Slim humanizes the problem. Its approach will be celebrated and criticized.
In Cleveland, Ohio, Ernest Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) and Angela Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) meet for their first Tinder date at a diner. Sparks are not flying. Ernest is religious, upbeat, and easygoing. Angela, a hardened criminal defense attorney, his opposite in every regard. She doesn’t believe in god, is highly opinionated, and genuinely perturbed by his eating habits. Ernest snatches his phone away from her while driving. The car swerves for a second. A policeman, who had been following them, flashes his lights.
The cop (Sturgill Simpson) is angry and aggressive. He orders Ernest out of the car when asked why they are being pulled over. The cop claims drunk driving, but Ernest doesn’t drink. The cop roots through the car and trunk, finding nothing. When he threatens to handcuff Ernest, a belligerent Angela gets out to complain. She’s an attorney that is going to film the encounter. The cop shoots her in the leg. Ernest struggles with him. Ernest kills the cop as they grapple for his gun.
A wounded Angela demands they run. Ernest is traumatized, but follows her lead. They drive away terrified and confused. Ernest wants to surrender immediately, tell his story. Angela has no faith in justice for black men. He will never see the light of day again if he turns himself in. They decide to flee to her uncle’s (Bokeem Woodbine) in New Orleans. As they navigate back roads and avoid cities, dash cam footage of the encounter galvanizes support among the black public. They become Queen & Slim. Falling madly in love on their desperate quest to escape.
Screenwriter Lena Waithe, a famous actress herself and creator of the Showtime series, The Chi, keeps the romance front and center. She takes time to develop the characters, show their nuances, and the tender moments that bring them together in the fray. There’s a fantasy, artistic element to the film. We hear Queen & Slim‘s thoughts, at times, when they are not speaking. It is a peek into their psyche. What they say, and what they mean, come together over the course of the film. Waithe’s exposition is brilliant.
Continuing on the romance, Queen & Slim extols blackness. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are hypnotic together. They don’t fall into each other’s arms. The severity of the situation cements their bond over time. Angela is initially supercilious, but broken inside. Ernest becomes a lion for her. She believes in him, and that faith leads to strength. Director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure, Master of None) expertly weaves a compelling black love story. A major release Hollywood film has never shown a black couple so artfully.
Queen & Slim has been characterized by Lena Waithe as “protest art” to police brutality. The deadly interaction in the beginning of the film is followed by others. They have different tones, but similar results. Not all police are painted with the same brush, but conflict ensues. Another theme, probably the most similar to Bonnie & Clyde, is the public support of the characters. Queen & Slim become black folk heroes. Power to the people, fighting oppression and racial subjugation. This pedestal was not expected or sought. The film has them genuinely surprised by the community response. They are also helped by a white couple (Flea, Chloë Sevigny). These portrayals will have detractors, and rightfully so. Institutionalized racism must be swept from law enforcement. But there has to be protection and respect for the brave people who serve their communities with distinction daily. A middle can be found.
Queen & Slim has several flaws that ground the film. Foremost is the pacing. It drags considerably at times. I’d be enthralled, then bored repeatedly. Melina Matsoukas needed a better narrative flow. She starts strong in the first act, but does a lot of meandering after. The fantasy elements, which near blaxploitation, are overdone. I understand Lena Waithe wants to paint her characters heroically in black culture, but it conflicts with her premise. Fugitives on the lam don’t drive around in a Catalina with blinged out rims, wearing leopard print dresses, and red velvet tracksuits. Their escape plan and actions are nonsensical. Characters as intelligent as Ernest and Angela would not be so foolish. The fugitives theme is the driver for the romance. Waithe doesn’t see these problems as important in her script, and glosses over them.
Queen & Slim is a vibrant, pertinent film. It’s not perfect by any means, but deserves acclaim for boldness. Queen & Slim is passionate, unapologetically black filmmaking. It tackles heady issues, but is a gripping love story at heart. I hope it inspires discussion and understanding. Queen & Slim is a production of BRON Studios and 3Blackdot with distribution by Universal.
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