Review by Sean Boelman
Queen & Slim, written by Lena Waithe (Master of None) and directed by first-timer Melina Matsoukas, is a new crime drama dealing with the timely theme of police brutality. Although it is a bit rough around the edges, Matsoukas’s voice is evident and Waithe’s script does a lot of leg work to make this an extremely compelling parable.
The film follows a young African-American couple as they go on the run after a date gone wrong. Although some, even some of the movie’s characters, would describe this as a “black Bonnie and Clyde”, that would be a huge disservice to the nuances and complexities of this script. Whereas the typical Bonnie and Clyde tale glorifies the life of crime led by the protagonists, Queen & Slim is instead a scathing critique of the justice system and the way in which the public reacts to the media.
The most interesting idea explored by this film is the way in which the public reacts to the actions of the main characters. Some characters believe them to be heroes, and others see them as vicious killers. By painting the characters and their actions in a morally ambiguous light, Waithe’s script brings a lot of humanity and realism to these characters, thereby allowing the movie to be an interesting conversation starter.
The script does a very good job of making the characters sympathetic, regardless of which side of the debate on which the viewer falls. However, perhaps most intriguing about the film is that it throws the audience almost directly into the action. Although a single scene gives enough context as to their personalities to allow the characterization to be effective, viewers aren’t given much more before the incident that is likely to polarize the audience.
Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) gives a phenomenal turn as the movie’s lead, and his performance is completely different from anything else he has done in the past. Whereas most of his past roles have required him to be a lot flashier, this character relies on his subtlety to bring out the emotion within the text, and he delivers. The true standout, though, is Jodie Turner-Smith in her first leading role. The way in which she commands the screen never ceases to impress, as she grips the viewer’s attention from beginning to end.
Many of the film’s issues come down to pacing, and that seems to be more a result of this being Matsoukas’s first feature-length directorial effort than anything else. At just over two hour and ten minutes, the movie could have spared to be just a bit shorter, but even so, the film doesn’t quite have the visual rhythm it needs. The cinematography and score are both wonderful, but the editing is somewhat lacking.
One of the most frustrating things about the movie is that the editing frequently works against the script and its natural emotion. There is one particularly disappointing sequence that cross-cuts between the two emotional climaxes of the film. Individually, these two moments could have been extremely hard-hitting and resonant, but because they are presented in this way, they end up feeling rushed and don’t have quite the impact that they otherwise would.
Lena Waithe’s script for Queen & Slim is one of the year’s best, and director Melina Matsoukas obviously has a lot of talent and potential; however, in the translation from page to screen, something seems to have been lost, keeping the movie from being as brilliant as it should be. It’s still very good, but Matsoukas’s masterpiece is yet to come.
Queen & Slim is now playing in theaters.