With Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas jumps from music videos to feature films, and her background in visual media shows in the style and rhythm of her long-form work. Queen & Slim is strikingly visual and operates almost like a series of vignettes connected by musical interludes. Matsoukas’s staging of Queen & Slim is so good, it makes you wish Lena Waithe’s script held up a little better. As is, Queen & Slim is a beautifully shot, uneven story that is extremely well-acted and is one helluva calling card for Matsoukas. It’s a slightly confounding movie, in the way it takes a story we think we know—lovers on the run—and turns it into something else, almost makes it something profound, but falls just short and settles for being a collection of beautifully shot interesting scenes. It’s not a bad movie, far from it, but it straddles an uneasy line, between being a work of profound pain and intense joy, and being an actual, dramatic narrative and a visual tone poem.
It all starts with a bad date. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are a Tinder match having a very awkward dinner. The evening gets worse when they are pulled over by a cop as Slim drives Queen home, and the tension ratchets up as the white cop grows visibly more edgy and nervous around Queen and Slim, leading to a shooting that leaves Queen wounded and the cop dead. The two are forced on the lam together, and it is impossible not to see Queen & Slim as a spin on Bonnie & Clyde, though Queen is less about their mad love and more about the joy that can be snatched from the jaws of defeat and debasement. Yes, Queen and Slim fall in love, but more than that, they experience a kind of freedom, exhilarating and joyful, which bonds them more than their shared trauma.
If Queen was just Matsoukas’s sumptuous visuals unwinding in a vaguely narrative and Malickian way, maybe it would better connect its imagery and its narrative. As is, there is a sort of shallowness in Queen, as the vignette nature of the scenes never quite connect. Turner-Smith and Kaluuya acquit themselves well—though they don’t have particularly strong chemistry, which makes it far more believable when they’re sniping at one another than when they’re falling in love—and there are themes that can be extrapolated from small moments in the film, such as finding joy in the moment is one of the purest forms of black resistance, but missing is a deeper resonance. Queen doesn’t really engage with what it means for Queen and Slim to be embraced as fugitive folk heroes, nor does it really have anything to say about police brutality beyond being a plot device. If Queen was a tone poem, that would be fine, as it would be entirely about the feelings and experience of watching. But there is a little too much actual story to get away with that kind of vibe. It sits uncomfortably between the two forms, never quite settling on how it operates.
Still, Queen & Slim is stylish enough to attract a devoted fan club. The aesthetics are everything, with production design by Karen Murphy, costume design by Shiona Turini, art direction by Spencer Davison and Jeremy Woolsey, set decoration by Ryan Watson, and all of it lensed by Tat Radcliffe. Queen embraces everything from drab Midwestern settings to the charming dilapidation of New Orleans to the almost too-bright seediness of Miami. Every step of Queen and Slim’s journey is photogenic; this is the kind of film you can put on mute and synch to your favorite album and just enjoy on a purely visual level. (As a fan of Edward Hopper, I especially love the many shots of isolated mundane roadside buildings.) I just wish the actual story was doing as much work as the visuals. Queen & Slim is a striking debut for Melina Matsoukas, but feels like a missed opportunity for Lena Waithe.