Queen & Slim and all the images you see in this review are owned by
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Seriously, how weird is it going to be when Daniel Kalula finally sells out? True he was in that Johnny English sequel that I haven’t actually seen, but his career since 2015 has been an absolutely sterling one with great performances in Sicario, Get Out, Black Panther, and Widows. Now he’s back with this film which looks to be one of the standout films of awards season, so we can only hope that his star continues to rise or that his inevitable cash in project is one that is utterly hilarious; like when Laura Linney showed up in that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel or how Nic Cage’s first film after Leaving Las Vegas was one-two-three punch of awesome nonsense called The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off. ANYWAY! With this movie taking on such a hot button subject matter with a great cast and a stylish looking presentation, does it manage to be one of the best films of the year or were we all fooled into seeing an utter train wreck? Let’s find out!!
Ernest Hines and Angela Johnson (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) who I don’t recall ACTUALLY being called Slim or Queen in the movie, are out on a rather mediocre first date when the Sword of Damocles that hangs over all people of color in this country comes crashing down on their heads in the form of a traffic stop. Within minutes of doing absolutely nothing, Ernest has a gun pointed at him and Angela is reaching for her cell phone to get this on film for both their sakes. The racists cop (Sturgill Simpson) doesn’t take long to shoot the unarmed woman in the leg and Ernest has no choice but to tackle the cop, wrest the gun away, and in the ensuing conflict he shoots the cop dead; leaving the both of them in a dire predicament. Know what is waiting for them if they get taken alive (which in and of itself seems like a slim possibility) Ernest and Angela get in the car and start driving as fast as they can to Angela’s uncle’s place a few hours away for shelter where they can regroup and come up with a plan. If they can somehow get to Florida and find a plane to take them to Cuba they should be safe at least for the time being, and so Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) gives them a bit of cash, a decent car, and the address of an old army buddy (Flea) who may just be able to get them that plane. Along the way however, they must contend with the closing in manhunt, staying under the radar, and making snap decisions on who they can trust, where they can hide, and just how much they can trust those they meet along the way. Can Queen & Slim manage to survive this journey and avoid the corrupt system that condemned them before they did anything wrong? What impact will their story have on the country and on those they meet along the way? Did any of those rich old jerks from Get Out think about these realities of being black in America when they were switching brains? I DIDN’T THINK SO!!
I have my minor quibbles with this movie, but it is still one of the best films of the year by quite a comfortable margin. It’s not as fun or exciting as many other movies this year which is what I tend to look for more of in determining which ones I liked the most, but it’s definitely got enough fire, passion, righteous conviction, and artistic flair to compensate for maybe a stretch or two of the movie feeling a bit tedious. It’s vital and relevant like a lot of movie’s we’ve gotten in the last few years, particularly Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, but it stands on its own as an oppressively intense look into the harsh realities of being black in a society built upon white supremacy while not forgetting to find beauty and humor within the humanity of the people caught in this situation.
The trailers do a good job of not giving away the overall flow of the movie (how it’s paced and how the narrative plays out after the shooting) which is great because the most unexpected aspect of this is the intriguing structure of their journey; feeling much more like a traditional road trip film than I would have expected. Many of the scenes are neatly self-contained with a cavalcade of colorful characters that Queen & Slim meet along their journey; from the overly exuberant, to the tired and cynical, and a lot more in between. I particularly liked an early scene where they meet someone they accidently hit with their car (by accident, I assure you) who brings a lot of levity right at the moment you worry the film be nothing but dour all the way through. There’s a lot more downtime and moments of character building than the race against time style premise would lead you to believe, and the performances from our two leads is top notch. Perhaps a bit muted because we’re going for a more grounded tone here, but their range definitely shines throughout the movie.
Like Sorry to Bother You or even Kalula’s breakout film Get Out, the politics at play are what drive the narrative and only become more prescient as they interact with the specific genre of the movie. The foundation of the movie’s plot is definitely based on Bonnie & Clyde with the subsequent media storm around them and posthumous notoriety (particularly the crime and gangster movies made in their wake) serving as thematic through lines. Both movies about two people who committed a crime and are on the run from a national manhunt, and yet where the movie diverges from that formula are where the film gets its power. Queen & Slim aren’t murderous thieves like Bonnie & Clyde, and yet they’re being hunted down as if they were. The criminality and danger associated with them was because of the color of their skin and not something they actively sought. The corrupt white supremacist system that empowers law enforcement to victimize minorities without consequence is what they had to fight against simply to survive which makes their situation all the more tense instead of darkly thrilling. There’s no debauchery or sinful glee with which they operate once they are on the road as outcasts from society; rather this typical format of the genre is much more introspective, contemplative, and bittersweet with many scenes of them ACTUALLY having fun being muted by the realization that this may be their last chance to ever do these things, and not in a rebellious LIVE FAST AND DIE YOUNG sense but rather that they’ve been thrust into roles they were unfairly railroaded into. Fortunately the movie finds the right balance of these elements so that none of it gets too heavy, but that constant sense of danger that any one thing they do or any one turn they make will be the end of the line for them which feels more and more inevitable and simply unfair as the movie goes along.
If there are any nits to pick, I would say that the decision to focus almost entirely on these two, while an appropriate decision, still left me feeling a bit disappointed and antsy in the second act. The trailers give the sense that the movie is going to be just as much about how the world is reacting to this shooting as it is about Queen & Slim’s escape from the law, but that’s really not the case as we rarely cut away from them throughout the movie’s run time. This makes sense in that the movie is about the actual people who get swept up in these situations and how their humanity is ultimately forsaken in the media storm that follows, but I still KIND of want to see that storm as the very brief glimpses into what the rest of the world is doing are some of my favorite scenes in this. There’s a bit with Slim’s father that manages to say a lot in a very short amount of time; as are scenes with a black cop being belittled by a white one, a protest that turns tragic pretty quickly, and even the way that Flea and Chloë Sevigny are talked down to when the police suspect they’re harboring the fugitives. More of this would have definitely helped the second act (particularly the stretch between Uncle Earl’s and Mr. Shepard’s which has good scenes but starts to feel like an actual road trip that’s probably gone on a bit longer than it needed to. Not a lot of peaks and valleys there outside of the protest which is towards the end of that stretch of the movie anyway so maybe a few MEANWHILE bits would have kept the pace up a tad.
Even with a few moments of tedium that drag the second act out a bit, I still think this is one of the best movies we’ve gotten this year. It’s got a lot more heart and joy than it’s dark premise would lead you to believe, and the film would have lost a lot of its power if it was a simply dour experience the whole way through. The humanity of the characters we meet throughout the movie sell the drama just as much as the politically charged premise and it’s well worth checking out in theaters if you have the chance. Seriously, the day Daniel Kaluuya shows up in a DreamWorks movie or a Disney remake, it’s just gonna break all of our hearts. I’ll certainly be glad for whatever payday he gets out of it, but dang if he doesn’t get better and better with each movie!