A professor I once had liked to describe the medium of film as a tool, and following that line of thought Queen & Slim is a hammer of a film if there ever was one. Like a hammer, it strikes quite a blow once it’s got some momentum going. And also like a hammer, it’s decidedly blunt; sometimes in ways that are very effective, other times in ways that are not.
Several recent films have focused on racial tensions in the United States through the specific lens of racist police violence, from Black and Blue to Blindspotting. And while the latter of those two was a tour-de-force, its warm critical reception failed to snowball into box office receipts. It feels inevitable that someone’s going to hit the jackpot here, and of the current batch, Queen & Slim feels far and away the most likely to succeed as far as capturing the attention of a wider audience is concerned. It’s got the right balance of well-founded rage and flair for punctuating with the outrageous, in the same ballpark as the heady mix that made Do The Right Thing such a cultural milestone.
Queen & Slim has a lot of great parts, and plenty of powerful scenes, but the pieces often seem at odds with each other in ways that ultimately detract from the overall experience of the film. While Melina Matsouka’s direction often excels in tension-building and in more intimate moments between the titular characters. For instance, it occasionally dabbles in ruminating voice-over, Terrence Malick style, but not often enough to truly become part of the rhythm of the film. Every time one occurred, there was a moment where I was taken aback by the terrible ADR before realizing it was not, in fact, ADR.
Lena Waithe‘s screenplay is powerfully unapologetic in its rage and frequently insightful in its commentary. Still, overall it feels a bit over-full, stuffed with too many ideas to do justice for all of them. A subplot involving a starry-eyed teenage zealot is rushed past the point of forgiveness into something belittling and absurd that leaps over the border between provocative and controversial for controversy’s sake. Even when the film misfires, though, it’s worth noting that the core ideas are sound. It’s just there’s only so much you can fit in two hours, and while the film consistently maintains a hammer-like approach, not very idea equally suits being hit smack dab on the head like a nail.
But for its faults, Queen & Slim has more strengths than weaknesses ultimately. For one thing, it couldn’t have chosen better leads. Daniel Kaluuya continues to impress with his mesmerizing screen presence. We’ve seen him play both hero and villain, but as unassuming shoe salesman Slim, he demonstrates compelling new facets to his already impressive range. Meanwhile, relative newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith does a commendable job of imbuing Queen with nuanced humanity where the role could easily have gone in unpleasantly caricaturish directions with its “defrosted ice queen” trajectory. With announced roles in two anticipated 2020 releases, the Taylor Sheridan penned Without Remorse and Kogonada’s sophomore feature After Yang, Turner-Smith is definitely one to watch.
While Kaluuya and Turner-Smith both inhabit their characters beautifully, their chemistry never quite convincingly makes the leap from begrudging allies to passionate lovers. The film’s generally compelling momentum has the unfortunate side effect of sometimes imbuing the story with a reverse-engineered quality; Queen and Slim as bickering traveling companions forced together by the circumstances of the first act is so utterly compelling that the transformation from “definitely won’t be a second date” to “ride or die” feels quite forced. Within the film, the video of the couple’s run-in with a trigger-happy racist cop goes viral. It makes them heroes of the people, copy-pasting them into a pre-fixed “Bonnie and Clyde” narrative with little concern for the realities of who they are as individuals. In a sense, the film itself does the same thing; they fall for each other because it raises the stakes, and that’s what compelling stories are, generally speaking, supposed to do. Unfortunately, here, the option that raises the stakes most in the second act feels decidedly at odds with the characterizations established in the first.
“Why do black people always feel the need to be excellent?” the film asks at one point, “why can’t we just be ourselves?” It’s an excellent question and one that really ought to be addressed—on the whole, Queen & Slim asks a lot of tough but vital questions—and yet, at the same time, it feels just a little bit guilty of that very same thing itself; of forcing people into roles in service of Proving a Point, first and foremost, even when the shoe doesn’t always fit. The film sometimes feels like a twisted variation of “double consciousness,” as described by W. E. B. Du Bois, in a subconscious sort of way, so dead set on starting fires that it does so, even when doing so undermines some of its many, many strengths. It’s a good film, one well worth your time and the conversations it will surely inspire, but I can’t help but feel like there was a truly great film underneath it sabotaged by a desire to be just that extra bit edgier and make just one more point.