Synopsis: A couple’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Bokeem Woodbine, Sturgill Simpson, Flea, Benito Martinez
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Running Length: 132 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: What most audiences don’t know is that by the time they see a film on opening weekend in a large multiplex with reclining seats and a big bucket of popcorn, the movie has been through a number of committees, approvals, screenings, edits, and adjustments. From studio heads to a soccer mom recruited in the parking lot at a 7-11, someone has watched this movie already and had some sort of say in the final cut. This is done to maximize the appeal in order to make the most money, hopefully in the first few weeks before something newer comes out to steal its thunder. It’s filmmaking by committee and it’s a disappointing way to get things done – that’s why you may get the feeling of a certain staleness lately when you head to the theater.
Then there are the rare directors/producers that get “final cut” written into their contracts, making them the last word when it comes to how the movie will turn out. If the film is a bomb, the buck stops with the director and the same goes if it’s an out-of-left-field success. I was surprised and totally delighted to learn the filmmakers behind Queen & Slim had negotiated this clause with Universal Studios and it makes sense why they pushed for it. The story being told is one that needed no outside tinkering or interference, no focus groups or market strategies…because sadly you can imagine opening up a paper tomorrow and reading about it happening in real life.
Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) has finally convinced Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, The Neon Demon) to go out with him. He works retail and she’s a lawyer that defends murders. He’s easy-going and passive, she likes restaurants to get her order right the first time. Slim’s driving her home from their pleasant but fireworks-free first date when they are pulled over by a Cleveland police officer. All Slim wants to do is take the ticket and go but the officer is clearly looking to make something more stick based on vague suspicion. Within seconds the situation has escalated, the officer is shot with his own gun, and the young couple flees into the night.
So begins a cross-country crime drama that’s equal parts Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise, and Badlands but is delivered clearly in its own voice. That voice comes from Emmy-winner Lena Waithe who came up with the story with author James Frey and has written a script that doesn’t pander to audiences. Waithe has created two distinct main characters that represent differing points of view, not just simple devil’s advocate opposites. Flipping gender roles on its head, Queen is the more aggressive and dominant partner throughout, often acting on impulse instead of taking time to consider the emotional consequences of actions. Slim is the more sensitive of the two, holding off the shock of what he’s done by focusing on the growing feelings he has for Queen.
As they make their way from the Midwest down South, they encounter folks who have seen the dashcam video of their crime that has gone viral and want to offer solace as well as people who feel they are only contributing to the police violence against people of color. Waithe isn’t afraid to introduce players that challenge her titular characters strongly because it shows all sides to the discussion…and allows the discussion to be had in the first place. There’s nothing one-sided in Queen & Slim, which gives it greater distinction from similar “issue” movies that come with a clear angle and objective. Waithe is obviously troubled by what is happening in the world and has used the film medium to express her frustration but it’s communicated in such a sophisticated way that you are compelled to lean forward in your seat and engage.
Directed by Melina Matsoukas, she brings her excellent eye from the music world (she’s behind Beyonce’s Formation video) but thankfully doesn’t fashion her feature debut as rapid fire head-spinner. This is a finely crafted movie, conscious of how it develops and what path it turns down. A trip to see Queen’s war vet uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Overlord) living in New Orleans with a houseful of barely clothed ladies could have been a real low point but Matsoukas has paced it so well and Waithe provided such defined personalities for the women we meet that it doesn’t feel as exploitative as it could have been. Only the drab taupe-ness of a visit with a husband and wife played by Flea (Boy Erased) and Chloë Sevigny (The Dead Don’t Die) is a bit of a yawn. Likely the point, but the mundane parallel of this visit compared to their New Orleans layover is etched with fairly broad strokes.
It makes little difference who else we meet, though, because Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are in almost every scene and they are fantastic. Kaluuya continues to show his strength at disappearing into any role he takes on, easily stepping into the soft-spoken Slim and your heart breaks watching him see his plans for the future fall apart with each setback they encounter along the way. He’s got great chemistry with Turner-Smith and it’s her you’ll want to keep your eyes on because it’s a star-making performance if ever there was one. Though she’s been in several movies already, this is her highest profile role to date and she knocks it out of the park. As Queen, she’s often asked to be front and center, exposing herself (literally) in the most vulnerable of ways. The icy front she has at the beginning isn’t totally an act and the reasons behind her emotions are made clear not just by Waithe’s late-breaking exposition but in Turner-Smith’s carefully constructed work.
It was an interesting experience to watch Queen & Slim with a packed house filled with responsive audience members. I was surprised at how many of them weren’t on the side of our lead characters and it was an eye (and ear) opening experience to have running commentaries during the movie. Normally I would get frustrated at the talking while a film was going on but here it was helpful because it gave me greater insight into how another person was interpreting the film from a perspective I could never truly understand. What’s happening with police violence is frightening and the growing number of deaths in the black community at the hands of police needs to be resolved. Queen & Slim won’t stop it but it introduces necessary conversations for audiences as take-aways – my hope is that people see the movie and do something, anything, afterward in response.