'Queen & Slim': Film Review | AFI 2019

A road trip that zigzags between the lyrical and the heavy-handed.

'Get Out' star Daniel Kaluuya and big-screen newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith play Ohioans whose lives are upended after a deadly encounter with a bad cop.

As first dates go, the one that opens Queen & Slim is a serious nonstarter — and an intriguing jumping-off point for a story. In the green-tinged light of a Cleveland diner, the two Tinder-linked strangers can't connect. She's an uptight lawyer and an atheist; he's a retail employee a believer, flashing a go-with-the-flow grin. Before digging into his plate of eggs, he prays with gratitude to the God he trusts (as his license plate proclaims), while she points out that the waitress screwed up his order. Their date is going nowhere fast, but before they can call it a night, a traffic stop on a desolate street turns disastrous and they're united, more or less, in a life-or-death flight from the authorities.

Unnamed except in the movie's title, the mismatched singles at the center of Queen & Slim are played, with sensitivity, by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, in her first major screen role. Of all the schematic differences that separate their characters, the most crucial might be this: She believes in luck and he believes in destiny. Whether either is on their side is the question at the heart of an earnest drama that can burn brightly at times but struggles to find its groove.

Working from a screenplay by Lena Waithe (The Chi, Master of None), debuting feature helmer Melina Matsoukas has made a romantic odyssey whose urgent subject is black identity and experience in the U.S. This is a story of parallel Americas, one black and one white, set mostly in the former, where police are perceived as an occupying force. It's a road movie that's timely — the plot reverberates with recent news stories, heartrending and enraging — but also untethered from headlines or the calendar, unfolding in a dreamscape defined by love and community, empowerment and the art of survival.

Matsoukas knows how to build tension, beginning with the fateful encounter that spurs the central characters' desperate trek from the Midwest to the South, through a modern-day Underground Railroad. In that quickly escalating skirmish with a smug, belligerent cop (Sturgill Simpson), there are strong echoes of the roadside arrest of Sandra Bland (and perhaps forebodings of her jailhouse death): It begins with Slim's swerve of the steering wheel and "failure to execute a turn signal," and soon attorney Queen, wielding a cameraphone, is wounded, the officer is down, and the duo are fugitives from the law, the focus of a nationwide manhunt for cop killers.

Their goal is to get out of the country — to escape the white America where, as Queen puts it, they're now criminals who would only become property of the state. Even so, a white couple (brief, sharp turns by Flea and Chloë Sevigny) prove instrumental to their plan.

The first stop on Slim and Queen's underground journey is the New Orleans home of her Uncle Earl, a pimp and a damaged military vet with an especially complicated relationship to Queen. Bokeem Woodbine delivers an effective mix of underplaying and swagger in the role, and Pose's Indya Moore makes a nearly wordless impression as a key member of the household harem.

Matsoukas, whose extensive credentials as a video director for pop superstars include Beyoncé's "Formation," shapes the uneven material with a lyrical visual style as well as an affecting and judicious use of music (Devonté Hynes, aka Blood Orange, composed the potent, gorgeous score). She and DP Tat Radcliffe capture striking tableaux of the Southern landscape. At a roadside blues joint, the lead characters' "second date" is exquisite in every aspect, a powerfully choreographed fusion of style and story. With almost no dialogue, the sequence deepens the pair's bond, lights a romantic spark, and delivers a stirring sense of a black America that, hidden but vibrant, offers a place of safety, at least for a dance or two.

The helmer's eye for beauty can work against the drama, though, prioritizing the look of the film over persuasive narrative. A prime example of this is the outfit that Queen spends most of the movie in, after she and Slim, fleeing police in the middle of the night, raid the closets at Uncle Earl's. For Slim that means a comfortable velour tracksuit; for Queen, a skimpy zebra-stripe slip dress and high-heeled boots.

It's hardly the first time that a female character has had to run for her life while looking as fetching as possible. You could argue that Queen's new uniform — like the vintage turquoise Catalina she borrows from Uncle Earl — is a badge of the non-mainstream world she now inhabits. But Turner-Smith ably conveys Queen's transformation from buttoned-up schoolmarm to a woman at home in her own skin, and that metamorphosis could have been twice as affecting if the stripping away of her white-world armor weren't so literal.

The heightened reality of Queen & Slim isn't a problem in itself. But as the drama proceeds episodically, some of those episodes, artfully constructed and preloaded for significance, founder and go nowhere. An impromptu stop at a horse farm is a self-conscious case in point. Beyond the beauty of the animals, and Slim's delight at his first (short) ride, it offers only a clear nod to an aching, and far more dramatically cogent, sequence in The Asphalt Jungle, and suffers by comparison to John Huston's masterful 1950 noir, which follows a couple on the run through similar geographic territory.

The movie hits a clunky low with the unfortunate juxtaposition of a sex scene and a protest rally. The intercutting of sex and violence is something that Spielberg couldn't pull off in Munich, and the gambit fares no better here, especially given that the rally, meant to bristle with powder-keg tension, instead comes off as camera-ready artifice.

The screenplay by Waithe (based on a story she wrote with James Frey, of A Million Little Pieces infamy) moves through dark comedy and horror-infused suspense to romance and melodrama, and Matsoukas struggles to navigate the tonal shifts. When a skeevy convenience store clerk threatens Slim with violence and then says, "I'm just messin' with you," a viewer might feel messed with too.

At its strongest, the dialogue makes incisive observations without fuss — as when Earl compares the title characters' plight to that of runaway slaves — but often it underlines its points and plants its narrative seeds all too plainly. In their mildly contentious first conversation, Queen tells Slim that photos "aren't just about vanity — they're proof of your existence," and you know that the taking of a photograph will become crucial at a later point.

Against the odds, Kaluuya and Turner-Smith inspire rooting interest in their characters. Queen's inflexible, argumentative nature deepens into compassionate strength, and Kaluuya's soulfulness effortlessly signals how wary Slim is beneath the easygoing surface, reflecting a lifetime of bracing for disappointment — or worse.

These two become folk heroes — a development that's wisely signaled not through a larger cultural lens but in intimate conversations and the gestures of strangers, as well as the adulation of a teen (Jahi Di'Allo Winston, of the Netflix series Everything Sucks!) and the disapproval of an older black man, who tells Slim, "I would've took my ticket and been on my way."

Earl jokingly refers to the couple as "the black Bonnie and Clyde," and a scene involving a second-story window recalls a pivotal moment in the 1967 movie about those real-life folk heroes. Even so, Matsoukas has rightly bristled at comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde. She might not like this comparison either, but among (white) Hollywood fare about people on the lam, her film hews closer to Thelma & Louise — a story of facing down systemic abuse and accepting the price of freedom. And like that film, it's not always subtle.

A less muddled, less self-conscious Queen & Slim could have been an indelible waking dream. Instead, it's hit-and-miss. But Waithe and Matsoukas are on to something, and it's the undercurrents rather than the filmmakers' more obvious exertions that hit the mark. It's mentioned almost in passing that the man who Slim kills at the beginning of the movie had a history as a bad cop and got away with at least one civilian shooting. At first you might wonder why this angle isn't explored further. But the bitter truth of Queen and Slim's reality, and the place where it intersects with the world we live in, is that those brutally pertinent facts wouldn't have mattered.

Production companies: Makeready, De La Revolución Films, Hillman Grad, 3BlackDot, BRON Creative
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson, Indya Moore, Benito Martinez, Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Melanie Halfkenny
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Screenwriter: Lena Waithe
Story by: James Frey, Lena Waithe
Producers: James Frey, Lena Waithe, Melina Matsoukas, Michelle Knudsen, Andrew Coles, Brad Weston, Pamela Abdy
Executive producers: Pamela Hirsch, Daniel Kaluuya, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Reginald Cash, Angelo Pullen, David Krintzman, Guymon Casady
Director of photography: Tat Radcliffe
Production designer: Karen Murphy
Costume designer: Shiona L. Turini

Editor: Pete Beaudreau
Composer: Devonté Hynes
Casting director: Carmen Cuba
Venue: AFI Fest (Galas)

Rated R, 132 minutes