In the Black Lives Matter Era, “Queen & Slim” Transcends the Standard Outlaw Movie

In the Black Lives Matter Era, “Queen & Slim” Transcends the Standard Outlaw Movie December 1, 2019

Reading a synopsis – and with a title that evokes Bonnie and Clyde – a moviegoer could be forgiven for expecting high jinks in the outlaw/folk hero vein.  But in transcending this genre, Queen & Slim ends up being much more.

With beautiful visuals and a tone more pensive than propulsive, Queen & Slim reminds me of another outlaw film that defied expectations, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  This 2007 film divided audiences and critics with its contemplative style.  (I loved it and return to it every couple of years, for its beauty, its faithful recreation of these two iconic lives, and its consideration of the corrosive power of celebrity worship.)

Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya are “Queen & Slim”

However, the title characters of Queen & Slim are no spotlight-craving, sociopathic robbers.  In this fictional feature directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe, our leads are a pair of young black Clevelanders wrapping up a dead-end first date.  Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) is driving Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) home when they’re pulled over by a white cop, who alleges that Slim didn’t use his turn signal.

Queen, a savvy defense attorney, reaches for her phone to film the encounter.  The cop then reaches for his gun.  In the tussle that follows, Queen is grazed by a bullet, before Slim grabs the cop’s gun and shoots him dead.

Queen knows there’ll be no justice if they stick around, so they hit the road.  Here, the contrasts between the two of them are only underscored further.  Queen is a prickly, take-charge loner.  Slim is good-hearted, God-fearing, and devoted to his extended family, but not especially bright.  In his fright, he neglects his Honda’s gas gauge, and they’re soon stranded on an empty night-time stretch of Kentucky road.

Matsoukas and her superb cinematographer, Tat Radcliffe, visually capture Queen and Slim’s tension and alienation.  At the start, Radcliffe lenses them one at a time filling half the screen, the other half empty space.  As the film progresses, as they grow closer, both of them occupy the same frame, the emptiness between them narrowing.

Queen & Slim is equally divided between time on the road and time holed up, a half step ahead of a nationwide manhunt.  Their mostly nocturnal journey is gorgeously lensed, Radcliffe’s light effects turning Kaluuya’s and Turner-Smith’s skin a beautifully burnished brown.  The choice of locations gives a vivid cross-section of regional America:  boarded-up Ohio storefronts, aging New Orleans homes, coastal two-lane roads.

Jodie Turner-Smith in “Queen & Slim”

Both leads likewise do excellent work.  Kaluuya (rightly Oscar-nominated for Get Out) conveys a decent man slowly coming to terms with an unthinkable situation.  Turner-Smith, in her first major movie role, offers a credible mix of toughness and vulnerability.  Together, their antagonism believably morphs into respect and attraction.

This is Matsoukas’ feature debut; prior to this, she’s mainly directed music videos for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, and Solange.  Not surprisingly, her film is accompanied by a finely-chosen mix of rap, R&B, blues, pop, and gospel, as well as a lovely piano-heavy original score by Devonté Hines.

A bluesy romantic interlude for “Queen & Slim”

As Queen and Slim traverse the Midwest and South, the news coverage turns them into folk heroes in black communities.  This compromises their ability to stay hidden, as protests in the vein of “Black Lives Matter” spring up.

Of course, Matsoukas’ film is meant as a tragic commentary on the imbalance of power between black citizens and police.  But Lena Waithe’s script doesn’t restrict itself to this element of black experience.  Queen’s self-description as an excellent lawyer prompts Slim to interject on the unfairness of a system in which people of color must be excellent in order to thrive in a white-dominated society.  In a peaceful rural interlude when Slim hops on a horse, Queen says that nothing scares a white man more than a black man on a horse, since it’s one of the rare situations when a black man towers over a white one.  (Waithe’s story does have some problematic holes, however: to name one, Queen identifies herself early on as an atheist; later on, without explanation, she’s sincerely saying grace at a dinner table.)

Through intelligent editing, Matsoukas depicts a social reality in which romance, sex, protest, and death must unhappily coexist.  And despite the film’s title, Queen and Slim go unnamed until the end, suggesting that any black American could be thrust into the unbalanced power struggle that our heroes find themselves in.  (Some stats for perspective, courtesy of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery:  an unarmed black person is killed by the police every 10 days; police officers kill 1000 Americans every year, with near-zero consequences.)

In Queen & Slim, there’s a cross in just about every other scene, whether on a wall, outside a storefront church, or dangling around Slim’s neck.  I came up with two possible explanations for this obviously symbolic choice.  First, it could signify the likely martyrdom facing our title characters at the end of the road.  Or, Matsoukas and Waithe could be asking where God is hiding, from such flagrant, ongoing injustice.  51 years after MLK’s assassination, in this era of police shootings, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and ubiquitous hate crimes, how much has really changed?

 

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