‘Queen & Slim’ Is a Hollow Black Lives Matter-Fueled Saga
The “Bonnie and Clyde”-inspired tale, staring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as two fugitives on the run after killing a racist white cop, is all style and little substance.
First, the scene I liked: the eponymous Queen & Slim, never thus named in the film, meet a young fan, the son of the unsympathetic black mechanic who charges full price to fix their teal Catalina, the getaway car. The boy takes the pair on a walk down the river; they confide in each other. The boy, thinking of the various, unpredictable ends to his life as a black person, worries about being remembered; Queen, borrowing a line from Slim, tells him his family will remember him.
The rest of the film, unfortunately, rings frustratingly false, from the stilted dialogue to the gorgeously retro threads, which are wedded with an undulating wave of seriousness that tells us how much these black lives are in threat. Don’t be fooled by the film’s strong ideas—they come from the Black Lives Matter and prison abolition movements that have fought for the rights not only of those deemed innocent, but those who are, like all of us, human. But Lena Waithe’s script, rather than creating a language for these ideas that is born out of life, follows mainstream movie convention, with characterization that relies on shorthand rather than imagination to get the talking points across. Director Melina Matsoukas, who has directed much of the TV series Insecure as well as music videos like for Beyoncé’s “Formation,” never manages to make the story otherwise cohere—we get a series of stylized vignettes with gorgeously lit black actors in highly competent costuming, not much more.
Queen & Slim comes from a story by the infamous writer James Frey (who faked much of his memoir A Million Little Pieces for commercial reasons) and Waithe. The result is a commercialization of black thought under the guise of an indie aesthetic. Even the title is surface-level branding: As far as I could tell, the names Queen & Slim have no resonance in the film’s action; rather, they culminate into a smart marketing tool for the movie itself. Who will forget the cool, already audience-tested name-plus-name formula, tailored for two gorgeous fugitives (e.g. Thelma & Louise, Bonnie & Clyde)? Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is like a stiff, traumatized Grace Jones and slim (Daniel Kaluuya) is a loose yet devout short king; their images are more carefully constructed than their lives. Still, the two leads each bring a subtle physicality to their roles—especially Kaluuya, who is a master of the gaze and shift. He tells a story of trying to be both tethered to and free of a body at once.
The story itself evades mastery. It goes like this: A white cop, who we later find out shot a black man who was walking his kid to school, shoots Queen, a defense attorney, in the leg during what TV media often inexplicably calls a “routine” traffic stop. In an attempt to protect her and himself, Slim shoots the cop, killing him. The couple were at the tail end of their first date, which hadn’t gone very well; now, they must make a life together in their run from the law. To their credit, Turner-Smith, Kaluuya, and the rest of the cast, including Indya Moore (again playing a sex worker), make much of the contrived material engaging, which includes a series of bizarre decisions during the traffic stop that I can’t imagine many black people making. This isn’t to victim-blame—the cop would’ve been in the wrong no matter the pair’s conduct—but the film takes pains to concoct the altercation, thwarting respectability by demonstrating that black people shouldn’t need to play dead in order to live. It’s a noble approach, but one that doesn’t actually work in the film—it doesn’t seem to follow what we’re told about the characters and requires that they shirk into a startling naivete in order to get from first date to police chase.
This kind of fumbling determines the rest of the film—choices are made for the characters that seem otherwise divorced from who we’re supposed to believe they are. In this way, the politics of representation have always troubled me because they can make the act of showing something more important than what you actually do with the story you’re telling. Queen & Slim is a film that, by regurgitating rather than thinking through ideas about justice, takes almost no risks at all. Of course, it’s a net positive that these actors get to play unapologetically black characters on screen—meaning, black characters unmediated through the lens of white approval—but there is not much in the film beyond that simple act of representation. Here you go, Queen & Slim seems to say to black Americans, have your trophy.
The final scene, my least favorite, begs us to take the film seriously, which nearly worked—you can’t help but be overcome with emotion, but nothing leading up to the moment earns it. Let me be more specific: The film presupposes violence, which makes sense. We live in a violent society, in which black people, specifically, are most likely to be on the receiving end of that violence when enacted by the state. But the film also presupposes itself in that its existence is necessitated only by its existence; it is self-contained, uninspired, and, at the very end, tries to make us forget. It is a gesture toward a film, a thesis about a film, a meme, a montage, a well-executed Vimeo staff pick. It falls short, wagering that many black people, grasping for this very story to be told or “represented,” will lift it up.