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Non-Review Review: Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim is a stylish modern indie that occasionally bites off more than it can chew, but is elevated by a surprising amount of warmth and humour.

It is no surprise that Queen & Slim looks beautiful. It marks the theatrical debut of director Melina Matsoukas, perhaps best known for her work on some of the most striking and memorable music videos of the past decade – including Rihanna’s We Found Love and Beyoncé’s Formation. Matsoukas has a wonderful eye, and she brings that to bear on this story of two unlikely fugitives who watch as their frankly uninspiring first date takes a sharp turn into an outlaw romance that finds them racing desperately for Cuba.

Getting the show on the road.

Queen & Slim is recognisably a modern American indie, drawing from the kind of cinema that Barry Jenkins helped to mainstream with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. It focuses on two young African Americans, and examines the world from their perspective. It is also dazzling to look at, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe saturating the frame with warm golds and neon purples. It exists in a liminal space, somewhere between a grounded naturalism and heightened dream logic – and all the more effective for that juxtaposition.

Queen & Slim occasionally veers a little bit too heavily into the stylistic clichés of this sort of cinema, leaning a little too heavily on shots studying the contemplative faces of its leads or taking in the breathtaking vistas of the American wilderness at an always perfectly calibrated distance from the eponymous couple’s vehicle of choice. It is to Matsoukas’ credit that Queen & Slim largely avoids indulgence, demonstrating an endearing humanism and humour beneath this carefully crisp and calibrated exterior.

Out(run the)law…

Queen & Slim is very consciously aware that exists in the context of a current movement within American independent cinema. Indeed, the basic premise of the film almost seems reverse-engineered from its position within this larger cultural trend. The outlaw has always held an important place in the American consciousness, and has been filtered and reflected through countless films. In many ways, the history of cinema can be charted through the lens of those outlaws; the cowboys on the frontier, the gangsters in the cities, maybe even the vigilantes in their tights.

Queen & Slim is highly stylised, which makes a great deal of sense given Matsoukas’ strengths as a highly visual storytelling. Queen & Slim is packed full of memorable images, and the film is smart enough to trade on one of its most striking – the two leads leaning against their ostentatious turquoise Cadillac, the photo taken in stark black and white. This image evokes another classic gangster moment, those almost-glamour-shots of Bonnie and Clyde in front of their Ford. However, the body language most strikingly evokes the photos of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Arthur Hill’s Bonnie and Clyde.

This date is (pulled) over.

Bonnie and Clyde was arguably more than just a gangster film. It is credited with many as one of the earliest examples – along with outlaw films like Easy Rider and Badlands – of what would come to be called the “New Hollywood” movement. Those films filtered a familiar American archetype through a new American aesthetic, producing works that felt at once timeless and also of that particular moment. Queen & Slim does something similar, telling a familiar story of two bandits on the run from the law, but one suffused with contemporary anxieties and shot in a contemporary style.

To be fair, Queen & Slim struggles a bit in its efforts to contemporise this outlaw story. Queen & Slim is very much rooted in modern anxieties. The inciting incident that places these two unlikely partners in crime on the run flows from a simple stop-and-search by a white police officer. Angela Johnson is a defense lawyer who is recovering from the execution of one of her clients. Earnest Hines is a more modest young man, who seems happy to go wherever life takes him. On the way home from a rather bland dinner, they are pulled over. The situation quickly escalates out of control.

Road warriors.

It’s an effective set-up, and Queen & Slim breezes through it before the opening credits. (Indeed, one of the movie’s shrewdest choices is to play out the characters’ decision-making processes over the credits, underscoring exactly how little time Angela and Earnest have to figure out their next course of action.) However, Queen & Slim struggles a bit when it comes to the larger aspects of this narrative, the unintended consequences that spin out from that split-second decision and how their actions ripple across contemporary America. Queen & Slim never seems to decide whether it wants to go big or small.

Similarly, the film occasionally veers a little bit into the stylistic clichés of the genre. There are extended periods where it seems like almost half of Queen & Slim consists of deliberate tracking shots following cars and trucks across the vast expanse of the American wilderness with an eerie steadiness. At several points, Matsoukas will play out conversations between characters over pensive close-ups on their silent faces. It all feels a little bit much, like a conscious effort to impose a distance between the audience and the film, borrowing cues from films like Moonlight, but without the same level of skill.

They certainly have drive…

However, these are minor problems. Queen & Slim works best when it shies away from the more obvious stylistic markers of modern low-budget American film-making. The film most convincingly articulates its themes when it remains tightly focused on Angela and Ernest, along with the bizarre and varied characters that they encounter along the way. When it pulls away from the pair, it loses itself. Similarly, the film’s strongest moments allow Angela and Ernest to interact with one another in shot – whether conversing or simply enjoying the silence.

Queen & Slim has a number of advantages that help in this regard. Most obviously, Matsoukas and Radcliffe ensure that the film always looks gorgeous, even when it is being indulgent. On a more basic level, Jodie Turner-Smith and particularly Daniel Kaluuya help to anchor what might otherwise be an overly stylised film in a very relatable human emotions. However, the single most charming aspect of Queen & Slim is its surprisingly effective sense of humour, its willingness to acknowledge the absurdity of its quirkier moments and to allow the characters to react to their situation with understandable confusion.

Queen of the road.

Queen & Slim constantly sets up indulgent or heavy-handed plot elements or diversions, which occasionally veer into the clumsy and broad. When Angela stops to admire some horses in a field, an evocative and powerful image given how candid the film is about the historical (and contemporary) treatment of minorities in the United States, Ernest worries that the horse will kick them. When Ernest decides to try and ride a horse, after Angela explains the symbolic importance of the action, their revelry is cut short by the arrival of the horse’s owner and a panicked escape.

Similarly, Matsoukas packs the supporting cast with performers that only add to this juxtaposition of the film’s (deservedly and understandably) heavy subject matter and its more absurdist elements. Country and western musician Sturgill Simpson has a prominent early role as a local sheriff, one that very interestingly plays with audience (and character) expectations. Later, a founding member of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers shows up playing a veteran of the Iraq War. There’s an interesting dissonance at play.

Don’t look back…

Whenever Queen & Slim feels like it might become a little too heavy or overwrought, it adds just a little bit of levity and absurdity to proceedings. It’s a canny approach, one which prevents the movie’s indulgences from ever overwhelming it. Despite the polished exterior and conscious stylisation, there is a lot of warmth and heart flowing through Queen & Slim. Even if the film fumbles some of the broader details, there’s a lot of charm to this spectacularly disastrous online date between two seemingly very mismatched people.

Queen & Slim is well-made, stylish, but also incredibly charming.

One Response

  1. Thank you, for the usual, perceptive review.

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