Rating: 4 out of 5
Queen & Slim is a movie that desperately yearns to be thought-provoking. For the first thirty minutes or so the premise is strong, the characters and their preceding journey engaging, however, what follows that initial promise of the first act soon devolves into cheap, lazy and exploitative storytelling. Without a hint of thoughtfulness the film dives headfirst into its political commentary with very little respect for the individuals at the root of the narrative, instead they are filtered through a myriad of different scenarios just to arrive at a “tragic” end. Queen & Slim has a lot to say, it just doesn’t quite know how to say it, as a result, the movie felt like a vehicle for the political provocations of screenwriters Lena Waithe, James Fray and first-time director Melina Matsoukas concerning the topic of police brutality rather than a platform for the characters to speak their truth and live their lives.
As aforementioned the first act is actually quite brilliant with the exception of some weak scripting. Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie-Turner Smith) share dinner at a diner, their conversation is uneasy and awkward, as to be expected from a first tinder date. Queen reveals during this conversation that she works as an attorney, which is a gaping plot hole in the narrative, she has a continuing and confounding ineptitude when faced with American law, she is surprised when the death penalty is legal in her own state, this is the first of many moments where Queen’s character feels distant, half-sketched and unclear. She does not make the path to her heart an easy one for Slim, in the beginning she is often evasive to his inquiries and affections. Smith’s performance is so muddled and indistinct, it’s hard to tell exactly how she feels about Slim even long after they’ve consummated their romance. Smith and Kaluuya never quite strike the chemistry required of this story, which is a shame because they both seem to be working extremely hard, which points to issues within the scripting and direction.
The pull-over-scene in Queen & Slim recalls the opening scene of the Hughes Brothers classic, Menace II Society. The boiling tension in the midst of a typical evening feels like a spiritual successor to that sequence. Rising voices, screaming commands, predisposed prejudices and misinterpreted glances all contribute to the absolute messiness of this interaction. The cinematography is frequently amazing, Matsoukas’ previous credits are in music video production and the assured style is in full display, however, the narrative suffers as a result. This movie could’ve been forty-five minutes shorter, losing almost none of it’s impact and gaining a probability that is currently dissuaded by exhaustion. The suspension of disbelief degrades throughout the course of this film until it disappears entirely, the viewer is left with a pure fiction that seems to be absent of connections with our actual world.
The film makes several political points intended to be applicable to our society, however, much like the Hindi film Rang De Basanti, the call for rebellion seems hollow and frankly dangerous to an impressionable audience. The film is blatantly irresponsible, it conveys incredibly important societal phenomenon and then runs away from those same structures it seems intent on critiquing. Perhaps this is a result of Queen & Slim biting off more than it can chew, I suspect this cut of the film was actually shortened, there are scenes and cut-aways that felt like they may have been part of larger subplots and instead come across as barely-present emotional beats and political commentary that falls flat in its complete lack of subtlety and emotional respect.
There are essay’s worth of ideology tossed back and forth in Queen & Slim, yet, they are overcrowded and overburdened here ultimately suffocating the voices of the characters. By the end of the film, Queen and Slim, have transformed from regular people into icons in the eyes of the public. The film misunderstands iconoclasm, Queen and Slim are radical on accident, completely out of self-defense, yet their personalities and personhood are lost in the shuffle on their rise to stardom, perhaps this was a point the film was attempting to make, but with a grocery list of other intentions the film has, Queen and Slim are somehow buried beneath their own movie.
The soundtrack is freaking awesome.