*There will be some plot spoilers in this piece*
You’ve just bought a new car. The engine is clean and ready to go, the tank is filled with gas, everything is perfect. You’re ready to drive around town, but you’re missing one thing: the keys. This analogy sort of works for Queen & Slim, a film that had so much potential. All of the individual parts to create an excellent film were there, except for a good script.
The debut film from Melina Matsoukas felt seismic when the first trailer dropped. Writing was to be handled by Lena Waithe, an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter who is equally versed in comedy and drama, and the film was to be led by Daniel Kaluuya, the Academy Award-nominated actor from Get Out, Black Panther, and Widows. Marketed as a “beautiful, modern black love story” and “the Black Bonnie & Clyde,” Queen & Slim was absolutely nothing of the sort. The film was more concerned with creating *moments* (either in the script or through certain shots) than delivering a story with fully realized, layered, and believable characters.
The film begins with a Tinder date. After a rough day, Queen, agrees to go on a date with Slim, whom she matched with on Tinder. On their ride home, a white police officer pulls Slim over and, without giving too much away, the two get into an altercation that results in Slim fatally shooting the officer. The film then follows the next six days as Queen and Slim are on the run trying to evade the nationwide manhunt for them. Plot-wise, the film seems great. Even if you’re a little bit tired of the recent onslaught of protest films, this is a plotline that hasn’t been explored on the silver screen in this era until now.
The core of this film is supposedly the blossoming love story between Queen and Slim, but despite the actors’ best efforts, it’s not entirely believable. Their characters have very little chemistry until well into their journey across the country. It makes sense that you would likely fall in love with the person who you’re risking your life for and with; realistically, you’ll likely die together. Unfortunately, the characters are so poorly written that believing in their love story feels like a chore. Queen and Slim are more like stereotypical sketches of characters than fully fleshed out ideas. Queen is the black girl with a traumatic past that strives to be “excellent” so she can bury her emotion and pain in her work and success. Slim is the easygoing God-fearing black guy that just wants to do right by himself, his God, and his family. The issue here is that this is as deep as these characters get. Queen and Slim are frustratingly flat. Queen’s incredibly traumatic backstory is one that could potentially drive an entire film of its own. Nonetheless, her past is unboxed and repackaged so quickly that her trauma feels more like parody than any sort of explanation for her current disposition. Slim, on the other hand, constantly talks about his family, but we never really hear anything about his past. So much of blackness and our stories are driven by tradition and our past, so to have two lead characters with nary an inch of depth is cheap and unrewarding.
Queen & Slim falls flat 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? Something else? Too often in this film, it felt like it was a beautifully shot and expertly curated cover for what’s really a vapid story. The majority of the film’s writing is so painfully bland that even an expert actor like Kaluuya struggles to really sell the script. Waithe tries too hard to have quotable moments (“Why do black people always have to be excellent? Why can’t we just be ourselves?”), and, in turn, sacrifices valuable moments to deepen her characters and explore the underlying themes of generational trauma, religion, domestic violence, class, sex work, etc. Furthermore, Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen) unfortunately gets her film debut marred by such a lousy script. She shows considerable range and has some great moments, but for an actress in her first leading role, it’s easy for a poor script to get in the way of your talent.
There are two main scenes, in particular, that were the most uncomfortable, confusing, and unfulfilling two minutes of cinema this year. First, there’s the scene where Queen and Slim first realize that their actions during the altercation with the cop (which were entirely in self-defense) have become emblematic of a modern-day black power movement. They have an encounter with a little black boy and his father that is so bizarre that in an effort to come off as comedic relief, the scene instead feels like a poorly done commentary on the glorification of people who never asked to be icons or role models. There was a lot that could have been done with that particular scene, but it felt very amateur and surface level. The second scene, and the one that has caused the most controversy, may be one of the worst scenes of the decade. In brief, the scene is a fairly explicit sex scene that focuses on Queen and Slim. The vulnerable and gorgeously shot moment is interspersed with shots of a fatal protest in support of our protagonists. Yes, you read that correctly. For some reason unbeknownst to anyone else on the planet, Matsoukas, Waithe, and the crew, though it was a good idea to blend protest footage (complete with riot gear and a cop death) with car sex. Mixing emotions and senses, when done effectively, can elevate a film, but here it felt so haphazard and grotesque that you start to wonder where their heads were at during production.
And then, there’s that absolutely abhorrent ending. We’ve had our fair share of post-Black Lives Matter protest films this decade (The Hate U Give, Fruitvale Station, Blindspotting, etc.), but Queen & Slim often hinted at something a bit different. Between one scene when our protagonists find a haven of black music and dance where no one will snitch on them and one too many lucky breaks, it seems as if maybe, just maybe, this film won’t end the way we expect it to. Maybe Queen and Slim will really make it to Cuba. Maybe we’ll see their relationship truly blossom as they successfully evade the manhunt. No. Forget all of that. “Traumatic” is the best word to describe the gory end to Queen & Slim, after the constant teases of a somewhat happy ending, the creators though it was more fitting to brutally murder our heroes and leave their blood-soaked corpses on the screen for an extended period of time. During that scene, the audience physically recoiled when the first gunshots rang. What was the reason? What were they trying to say? That even in a completely fictionalized story black people will still die at the hands of the police? Queen & Slim had the opportunity to be so much more innovative with its storytelling and general plot, but the filmmakers played it safe and kept their vision narrow and shallow.
Matsoukas has directed award-winning music videos for Beyoncé (“Formation“), Rihanna (“We Found Love”), and Solange (“Losing You”). She has an incredible eye for the most picturesque shots, and she knows how to push the artists that she’s working with. Her work, as a director, in Queen & Slim should be commended. Her knowledge of vibrant and muted color palettes and her use of lighting, especially on dark-skinned black bodies, is evident throughout the film. Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous to look at and Matsoukas draws strong performances from Kaluuya and Turner-Smith despite the poor script. Queen & Slim is the sort of film that will be (and has been) praised for simply touching the topic of police violence against black people and delivering a slight twist on the concept. That is simply not enough. As audiences, as critics, and as black people we deserve more from our art. We deserve happy endings. We deserve to see ourselves as fully realized characters with properly acknowledged trauma that live until the very last second of film runs out. As a black critic and viewer, I wanted to adore this film. It’s not often that I get to see two darkskinned leads in a movie with a budget like this and with a visionary like Matsoukas behind the wheel. In spite of this, it’s not fair to myself or to black creators if we aren’t honest with our criticisms. There’s a lot of good in Queen & Slim, but there is also a lot of bad. 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.