Movie Review | Queen & Slim
By Simon Sweeney
The Quick Take: In the sea of inventive and excellent race-conscious films in recent years, Queen & Slim struggles hard to stay afloat.
Queen & Slim comes at the end of a decade arguably defined, especially in its second half, by the popularity of innovative, invigorating portrayals of and perspectives from the black experience in the United States: Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer in music; Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in literature; a smorgasbord of films from Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther to Jordan Peele’s Get Out to Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman (and absolutely not Green Book). Director Melina Matsoukas is responsible for one of these defining documents herself: she directed the video for Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which contends with Childish Gambino’s “This is America”—also dealing with police brutality and race—for the most impactful of the decade.
Matsoukas has now arrived to the world of feature narrative pictures with Queen & Slim, a new entry in the Bonnie & Clyde (directly referenced in the film) mythos: the title pair (Jodie Taylor-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya, respectively) end up running for their lives across multiple states after Slim shoots a cop (a nicely revolting modern country music legend Sturgill Simpson, who apparently acts) with his own gun in self-defense. The frame is good and rings true, and the small glimpses we get into the general populace’s reaction to the duo are often the film’s most effective moments: two father-son pairs with a variety of opinions on the situation, a cut to Slim’s family, and clashes at protests in support of the two fugitives.
But for as good of a concept as Queen & Slim boasts—it is a fascinating one—an occasionally unfocused directorial vision, a screenplay in desperate need of cutting and revising, and one truly dreadful performance restrict the film from heights it should have been able to reach. The script, dialogue aside (I blame dialogue issues mostly on the acting, which I’ll get to in a few sentences), entirely fails to render Queen & Slim themselves believable—the two take turns being the voice of reason, with the off-duty one being so incredibly stupid that it’s a wonder they’re not captured or dead within the first ten minutes of being on the run, when they elect to capture a well-meaning Sherriff and abandon him in the trunk of a car. Time is of the absolute essence as they make a mad dash to Cuba, where they’ll attempt to start over. Nevertheless, each of the two frequently insists that they stop so that they can dance, or ride a horse, or just relax. This develops to a point, around the fourth or fifth time they pull their car over, when I couldn’t help but laugh.
The believability is not helped at all by Turner-Smith’s performance. She pulls off the silent parts well, but her lines come off as if being recited from cue cards opposite a brick wall, as opposed to a truly dynamic and excellent Kaluuya, whose portrayal of Slim is held back by the ever-stone-faced Queen he has to play against in most of his scenes. Bokeem Woodbine’s hilarious Earl—Queen’s pimp uncle—and Flea and Chloë Sevigny as a white couple who semi-reluctantly aid the pair of outlaws in their flight add some much needed color, which it’d would be impossible for Kaluuya to provide all on his own.
Queen & Slim ultimately stumbles almost as much as it soars, but Matsoukas’s direction boasts impressive ambition, which lends great promise to her future in feature films. The film could be worth catching eventually on streaming for its gorgeous camerawork, a solid score courtesy of Devonté Hynes (better known as Blood Orange), and Kaluuya’s performance, but the execution just isn’t there enough to make it truly worth your time. I hope that in time, Queen & Slim will serve as a reference for the pure ambition and promise shown by Matsoukas early in her career as she goes on to possibly smaller, but much better things.