*There will be some plot spoilers in this piece*
We live in an age where the most popular restaurants are not renowned for their cuisine, they’re lauded as the most aesthetically pleasing backdrops for photographs that guarantee virality across Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter. Substance has been cannibalized by aesthetics. The fruitless odyssey for “moments” has rendered fully-formed works of art hollow and barren. Queen & Slim (2019) is one of the many disappointing results of a popular culture that has increasingly flattened nuance in a search for quick snapshots and soundbites.
The feature film directorial debut from acclaimed Grammy-winning music video director Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Mirror) and Jodie Turner-Smith (The Last Ship, Nightflyers) in what has been (incorrectly) proclaimed as “The Black Bonnie & Clyde.” Written by Emmy-winner Lena Waithe, Queen & Slim begins with a Tinder date. After a tumultuous day at work, Queen (Turner-Smith), agrees to go on a date with Slim (Kaluuya), whom she matched with on the dating platform. On their car ride home, a white police officer pulls Slim over, and the two get into a physical altercation that results in Slim fatally shooting the officer. The film then follows the subsequent six days as Queen and Slim are on the run attempting to evade the nationwide manhunt for them.
At its core, Queen & Slim should be about the way in which the love story between its titular characters slowly unfurls. Despite the actors’ best efforts, the film simply is not believable. Queen and Slim have very little chemistry for the majority of the film. In fact, their love for each other seems to spring out of the ether because there isn’t any genuine indication that their collective future holds even a chance of love. It makes sense that a person would likely fall in love with someone who they are risking their lives for and with; realistically, they’ll likely die together. Sadly, the characters are so poorly written that believing in their love story is a chore. It’s a laborious task with an insult of a reward. Queen and Slim are mind-numbingly stereotypical rough sketches of Black millennial archetypes instead of genuinely layered and nuanced characters. Queen is a Black girl with a troubled past that strives to bury her pain in a mound of capitalistic “excellence.” Slim is a complaisant God-fearing Black guy that aims to do right by himself, his family, and his God. This is as deep as these characters get. From their first scene together to their last, there is no tangible growth in the audience’s understanding of these characters because the script forbids that opportunity. Queen and Slim are frustratingly flat. When a film is disproportionately carried by its lead performances, the characters cannot afford to be uninteresting. It’s like going into a rainstorm without an umbrella and feigning shock that your clothes are wet. Queen’s profoundly traumatic backstory could anchor a film on its own. Nonetheless, her past is unboxed, repackaged, and buried so quickly that her trauma is more like a parody than any sort of explanation for her current disposition. Slim, on the other hand, constantly talks about his family, but rarely about his past. So much of Blackness and our culture is driven by tradition and our collective and individual pasts, so to have two lead characters with nary an inch of depth is cheap and unrewarding.
Queen & Slim flounders because the film isn’t sure of what it’s trying to say or be. Is this a message about the perpetual trauma and danger that Black lives must exist within and survive in spite of? For the vast majority of its duration, this film uses beautiful shots and carefully curated cinematography to disguise the stinking vapidity of its story and the weakness of its script. The majority of the film’s writing is so painfully bland that even a generational talent like Kaluuya (the recipient of one Academy Award from two career nominations) struggles to truly sell the script. Waithe wastes her time with cringeworthy quotables like, “Why do Black people always have to be excellent? Why can’t we just be ourselves?” In turn, she unfairly forfeits valuable moments to expand the stories of her characters and dissect the film’s interlocking themes of sex work, class struggle, generational trauma, domestic violence, and religion. Conversely, Jodie Turner-Smith shows considerable range in her first leading role. Unfortunately, the uneven script mars even the greatest parts of her output.
In particular, there is one scene that may be one of the worst film scenes of the last decade. In brief, it’s an explicit sex scene between Queen and Slim. The tender scene is intersowed with sleazy shots of a fiery fatal protest in support of the protagonists. The decision to blend protest footage, complete with riot gear and a cop death, with car sex is perhaps the most astounding example of miscalculation. Mixing emotions and senses, when done correctly, can elevate a film. In the case of Queen & Slim, this exercise is so haphazard and grotesque that the true motive of the film begs to be interrogated. Car sex with a side of protest is gross, but the film’s abhorrent ending unequivocally takes the grand prize. Despite the onslaught of hope-stripped post-Black Lives Matter protest films (Fruitvale Station, The Hate U Give, Blindspotting etc.), Queen & Slim often hinted at something a bit different. Between one scene where Queen and Slim find a haven of Black music and dance where snitching is foreign, and multiple lucky breaks, it seems as if the film won’t end the way that it is expected to. Nonetheless, after several teases of a pseudo-happy ending, Queen & Slim brutally murders its titular characters and leaves their blood-soaked corpses to linger and fester on screen. It’s an uninspired and shallow ending that underscores the redundancy and limitations of mainstream post-Black Lives Matter films.
Melina Matsoukas has directed award-winning music videos for Beyoncé (“Formation”), Rihanna & Calvin Harris (“We Found Love”), and Solange (“Losing You”). She has an incredible eye for the most striking shots. Her work as a director in Queen & Slim should absolutely be commended. Her knowledge of vibrant and muted color palettes, and her inspired use of lighting, especially on dark-skinned Black actors, is evident throughout the film. Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous to look at. As Queen and Slim travel across America, the intensity and allure of the ever-changing landscape never waver. It’s also a stylish film. Leopard print, deep maroon tracksuits, and pastel thongs give more body to the film than the script does. In addition, Matsoukas draws strong performances from Kaluuya and Turner-Smith despite Waithe’s poor writing.
The thirst for media that reflects police violence against Black people in the modern era results in films garnering scores of praise for doing the bare minimum with the topic. It’s not enough. Truthfully, having two dark-skinned Black leads in a film with a sizable budget is an unfair rarity. To squander this opportunity with an aimless and bromidic script is absolutely devastating. Black moviegoers deserve better art and representation than this. With a better writer at the helm, Queen & Slim could have been the seismic moment that it deserved to be and that we all wanted it to be. What was supposed to be an earthquake was merely a tremor.