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“Queen & Slim” Has Mixed Success With Its Explosive Message

Some films are easy to discuss. Others are difficult to break down, especially when it comes to their problematic elements. Queen & Slim decidedly falls into the latter category, mixing some really strong moments with a number of issues that holds it back. For all of the strong performances, compelling ideas, and quality cinematography on display, too many of the choices made, particularly in the back half of the movie, sabotage a potential laden tale. Instead of soaring towards the heights of Academy Award contention, it instead sinks down to become an interesting failure. Considering all of the potential here, it’s a definite disappointment.

The movie is a drama with a lot to say. At the start, we’re just observing the middle of a forgettable date between two African American individuals. The man (Daniel Kaluuya) and the woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) are not well matched. He works in retail and believes in religion, while she’s a criminal defense attorney and believes in facts, not faith. In short order, this is poised to be the first and only meeting between the two. Then, while he’s driving her home, their car is stopped by a police officer. Though we have come to know they’re good hearted, well educated, professional citizens, the cop only sees a potential arrest. The man is interrogated and his trunk searched, leading the woman, knowing the law, to exit the vehicle and begin recording the encounter on her phone. This escalates the situation, leading to the officer’s gun being fired, a struggle, and then the death of said cop. Knowing how this looks, regardless of the circumstances, the two flee, heading out on the run. As they head south to the home of her uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) in search of a way to get out of the country, their story becomes a media sensation, as the whole thing was caught on the squad car’s dash cam. What’s more, plenty of Americans are in support of their cause, leading to increased efforts by the police to bring them to justice. Now a couple, the pair have unwittingly become a symbol to many in the country. What was just a tragedy is now emblematic of a whole race’s feelings of anger, fear, grief, and trauma. Melina Matsoukas directs a screenplay by Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the story with James Frey. Tat Radcliffe handles the cinematography. Supporting players include Flea, Chloë Sevigny, Sturgill Simpson, and more.

Without question, the best part of the film are the central performances, as well as one plum supporting role. Newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith is a force, while Bokeem Woodbine shows up early on in the second act and steals the show. Daniel Kaluuya is his reliably good self, and he shares solid chemistry with Turner-Smith. The evolution of their characters’ relationship, when the forces of the narrative aren’t manipulating them, is compelling to witness. However, the more the writing forces itself upon us, the less successful this flick becomes.

Queen & Slim struggles in its second half. The main characters begin behaving in ways that serve the script, as opposed to who we’ve come to know them as. Then, there are larger thematic issues. Notably, Frey and Waithe saddle Matsoukas with a terrible sequence that the flick honestly never recovers from. The creative forces opt to mix a sex scene with a conflict between cops and protestors that turns violent. The coming together of sex and violence may seem irresistible, metaphorically, but it never works. Steven Spielberg couldn’t pull it off in Munich, and the talent here can’t do it either. From there, the message gets muddled more and more, up until the end, which instead of leaving you in tears, leaves you wondering how else this story could have been conveyed. The issue of police shootings and racial tensions in America is a subject well worth exploration, and numerous works have done it recently. This one just gets clumsy and can’t pull off what it intends to.

This week, Queen & Slim opens up, hoping to capture the zeitgeist. Despite noble ambitions, it can’t help but be a letdown. Last week, after seeing it, I wrote on social media that it was equal parts affecting, angry, clumsy, frustrating, moving, and well acted. I stand by that all. The mixture just isn’t balanced, leading to a missed opportunity. A recommendation is not possible on my end, but feel free to see for yourself and decide. Your mileage may vary…

Queen & Slim is in theaters on Wednesday.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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