REVIEW: Queen & Slim [2019]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: November 27th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Melina Matsoukas
Writer(s): Lena Waithe / James Frey and Lena Waithe (story)

“Can I be your legacy?”

Despite what your Fox News watching relatives say, Black people in America aren’t asking to be killed. They aren’t “thugs” leeching off a system those same folks are banking on to carry them through retirement. And their rage at being left for slaughter isn’t an excuse for you to wield a badge like a southern slave owner. So when a young couple lurch their car while driving at night, they aren’t baiting a cop to pull them over. That teetotaler praying before diner food and his lawyer Tinder date with a justified chip on her shoulder aren’t out to prove a point. When bias is applied to actions against them, however, survival instincts kick in because their truth is rendered meaningless when they’re guilty the second they’re born.

Lena Waithe understands this reality all too well as a Black lesbian with a potent platform. She knows that making Queen & Slim‘s leads “God-fearing” (Daniel Kaluuya‘s Slim) and “educated” (Jodie Turner-Smith‘s Queen) will put the onus on racism even before details surface about the cop (Sturgill Simpson) who profiles them, shoots first, and ends up dead. Waithe takes a story that originated from what appears to be an unlikely source in James Frey (I’m not sure about the details here) and intentionally backstops every single interaction she writes with complex racial, gendered, religious, and philosophical dynamics. And first-time feature director Melina Matsoukas does the same visually by packing every frame with details meant to trigger our sympathy and prejudices. Just look at the photo placed in the officer’s car.

So while everything that happens stems from this altercation—Slim is pulled over and unjustly searched when Queen exits the car to pull out her phone before the gun goes off once in the officer’s hands and again in Slim’s—it’s less a catalyst for a police chase than an introspective turn of the mirror onto a society allowing it to happen. How do they react to what transpired? How does the country react? Where do we draw the line as far as understanding there’s more to what happened than what they say and what the dash-cam footage reveals? One person might see it as retribution, another as pure happenstance, and yet another as their own doing. Maybe all three of them are White. Maybe they’re all Black.

Remember, though, that self-defense is an impossible sell in cases with fallen policemen. The system does a whole lot to protect cops who do unconscionable things and perhaps even more to avenge them as martyrs even if the stain of those unconscionable things are still fresh. The conversation would therefore turn away from the officer’s transgressions in order to focus upon his killers. Why didn’t Queen and Slim do what he asked? That’s of course a trick question since they were doing exactly that right up to the moment when Slim was ordered on the ground at gunpoint for asking a human question. And let’s say Queen let him get arrested. What then? Why is “follow orders” code for “be submissive” to Black people? That’s an easy one.

Off they go from Ohio to New Orleans with aspirations to make it to Florida and hop a plane to Cuba. They shave their heads, change their clothes, and switch cars as everything that can go wrong (police searches, blown radiators, and an “enemy number one” reputation they never wanted) does. The beauty of it all, however, is the fact that they aren’t what either side of the conversation says they are. They’re neither criminals nor heroes. Queen and Slim were simply driving down the wrong road at the wrong time before finding themselves guilty of being willing to fight back. At the end of the day, they deserve to be alive. And if the game weren’t already rigged, maybe they’d have faced the consequences of their actions.

But that’s the rub. If it were up to Slim, he’d have waited to be killed because his naïve sense of moral and spiritual decency has instilled a notion that “good” is enough. Queen, on the other hand, knows this isn’t the case. The reason she agreed to this date was because she didn’t want to be alone after hearing her client was sentenced to the death penalty. She doesn’t even have to think about running when Slim pulls that trigger because she’s already made up her mind that it’s the only option they have. They’re stuck together whether they like it or not because they can’t trust anyone else. Maybe someone else will provide them sanctuary, but it’s inevitable that a nosy neighbor will eventually dial 9-1-1.

Waithe doesn’t make them jaded or pessimistic in any way, though. She instead transform this treatise on America’s blind devotion to law enforcement as a means of protecting entitlement over justice into a powerful romance of hearts and minds. As the pressure mounts, Queen and Slim discover truths about each other that they never would have on a “normal” encounter. They expose their scars, fears, and desires via impulse. They begin to live each hour as if it’s their last because chances are that it is. And Matsoukas expertly avoids crossing the line between sexualizing the act (a la Natural Born Killers) and sexualizing the characters. She creates tension not because they lust over the violence, but precisely because they don’t. There are more pressing matters than love.

Or maybe there aren’t. Maybe the whole point is that love is what matters above all else. It’s love—albeit hidden and buried—that provides their first respite thanks to Queen’s estranged veteran uncle Earl (it’s crazy how much Bokeem Woodbine does with his sparse screen time). Love let’s his old war buddy (Flea) take in two Black fugitives in a lynch mob type of southern town despite his wife’s (Chloë Sevigny) vocal reservations. Love for the abstract also supplies Slim the chance to take Queen dancing, Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) his idols despite his dad (Gralen Bryant Banks) not approving of what they did, and a Good Samaritan (Benito Martinez) to show the calm compassion that could have prevented this whole ordeal from happening. Love provides hope.

Because love can’t prevent tragedy, however, Waithe must be fearless in dealing as many bad hands as good. This fact goes a long way towards ensuring that Queen & Slim becomes a bit overlong and over-stuffed, but it’s all crucial to maintaining her consistent motivation to force the audience into really confronting what’s happening beneath the superficial media sound-bytes (and boy are those damningly editorialized themselves). People will take what these two heroes/villains/victims did and go down the wrong path on both sides. Some will use it as an excuse to kill more cops or more Black civilians rather than look within to try stopping the hemorrhaging altogether. Queen and Slim just wanted to go home. Now they’re compelling symbols for the resistance and oppressors alike.

Kaluuya and Turner-Smith magnificently portray their characters as the opposite: regular people battling tooth and nail to keep drawing oxygen since every breath after the first gunshot has been on borrowed time. They are scared out of their minds and yet they often find something to remember what it was to be carefree, sharing it with the other to enjoy a break from the chaotic screaming of their thoughts. They push back against the other’s petty flaws because decorum is a luxury they cannot afford. And they catch a glimpse of magic in each other’s eyes when their honesty allows their vulnerability to take control. Queen and Slim discover themselves through each other to become their best versions despite their impossible circumstances. Let’s hope that we will too.


photography:
[1] (from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas. Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures. (c) 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsouka. Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures. (c) 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] (from left) Goddess (Indya Moore), Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsouka. Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures. (c) 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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