It’s rare to see a film attempt to, on its own, birth a new myth or legend or piece of folklore, but that’s precisely the aim of Queen and Slim. Designed more as a new entry into American mythology than a typical romance or on-the-road story, its lofty ambitions are admirable, but come with inherent flaws that it finds difficult to overcome, relying on slick visuals and a powerful Daniel Kaluuya performance to make up for a hollow script. As a calling card debut feature for director Melina Matsoukas, it’s stylistically impressive, but ends up less than the sum of its often striking parts.
Queen and Slim kicks off with a mightily potent premise, as a mediocre Tinder date between an unnamed man (Kaluuya) and woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) takes a turn for the horrifying after a racist police officer pulls the pair’s car over. It’s a heart-in-mouth sequence, every escalation of aggression sending shivers down your spine, culminating in the man shooting the cop in self-defence and forcing the pair to go on the run together. From there the plot gets more distant – the man and woman become folk heroes and fall deeply in love, but we’re never quite shown enough to fully explain either.
In its mythic context, this heightened vagueness makes sense, but isn’t particularly satisfying storytelling. Characterisation is thin on the ground – though the man’s love of food and hatred of having his photo taken make him instantly relatable – and whilst Kaluuya is a magnetic enough performer to compensate for this, Turner-Smith isn’t. Her performance ends up rather flat, which contributes to the central love story not quite clicking. This is exacerbated by the compressed timeframe in which the film takes place. We’re told near the end that the events have taken place over a mere six days, enough time for the political movement around the couple’s journey to believably coalesce, but not enough for the relationship itself.
It’s frustrating, because Lena Waithe’s script shines brightest precisely when it’s being specific. She crafts a textured and multifaceted look at the black experience in flyover America, people making the best out of a bleak situation. Some supporting characters, like Bokeem Woodbine as the woman’s enjoyably hammy New Orleans uncle, are a little broad, but there’s variety, humour, and heart found in Waithe’s study of them. These elements get the most play in the film’s first half, and there are some great ‘road trip’ moments too, like a hilariously low-key gas station robbery or a brief horseback ride in a roadside field.
Things are less convincing in the second half, especially after a frankly embarrassing sex scene that serves as the climax of act two. It goes on for an uncomfortably long time, and is bafflingly intercut with a protest that ends with a shockingly violent act that simply doesn’t ring true. It’s in disquietingly poor taste and Queen and Slim never really recovers from this moment, even though there are still spells of tension and beauty as the finale approaches.
Though there are too many establishing shots of the car on different roads, Matsoukas’s visual direction is mostly superb. The paradoxical decaying urban ugliness and vast natural beauty of America’s more impoverished states is captured expertly, and her use of colour is magical. Soft blues and greens dance around at dawn and dusk, and the intermittent bright lights of rural America at night are painterly and dreamlike. Matsoukas’s background as a music video director is most evident in the excellent soundtrack, which does a lot of the emotional work that the writing often neglects. Queen and Slim is a fascinating experiment and often a visual treat, but simply doesn’t put in the ground work to reach the ‘classic’ status it’s clearly aiming for.