Monday, November 25, 2019

Queen & Slim - Review

It seems everything and everyone is getting a modern 21st century upgrade these days, including Bonnie and Clyde. Though the famed crime companions were far more notorious for their ill-intent and violent tendencies, Queen & Slim are the opposite, meaning no harm, but falling into a life of running due to the circumstances that befall them. Within moments of their tragedy, decisions are made, families are abandoned, and they both become symbols for everyone else’s lives and stories.

Queen (Jodi Turner-Smith) and Slim’s (Daniel Kaluuya) first date takes an unexpected turn when a policeman pulls them over for a minor traffic violation. When the situation escalates, Slim takes the officer's gun and shoots him in self-defense. Now labelled cop killers in the media, Slim and Queen feel that they have no choice but to go on the run and evade the law. When a video of the incident goes viral, the unwitting outlaws soon become a symbol of trauma, terror, grief and pain for people all across the country.

The weaving of the grim and the romantic from writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas is impeccable. It would be so easy for the film to get lost in its fatalism approach to criminal justice and the police, but the two creatives behind it find a way to balance it all in a very melancholy fashion. Queen and Slim, as they’re both named for most of the film, may be on the run through a modern day underground railroad, but that doesn’t stop them from dancing or (attempting) to ride a horse. And in those little moments, the film finds its humanity that has been stripped from its titular characters in more ways than one.
In a film that relies so heavily on its leads, Queen & Slim requires actors that can carry the load. While Waithe’s script drips tension at a steady pace with each new stop, Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are what sells the emotional aspects of this circumstantial coupling. Kaluuya is still fairly new to the scene, but audiences know what a powerhouse he can be. But here, that all fades, and Kaluuya, despite not getting a ton of character development, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and each facial expression shows a multitude of feelings flying by a mile a minute. In a just world, Kaluuya would be in the thick of the Best Actor conversation.

However, his other half may just be the best thing to come from this film, outside of an excellent directorial debut for Matsoukas. Jodi Turner-Smith is a revelation in a showier role, the sharp, emotionally guarded Slim that slowly reveals pieces of herself on their journey to safety. Though she takes the initial lead upon the tragic night, stemming from her experience as a defense attorney and knowing how this plays out, she is far from tactical, choosing dignity over safety on numerous occasions. In fact, while the couple shares palpable chemistry from scene one, it’s oddly refreshing to see someone make realistic, even irrational, mistakes. In a world that’s taking away their humanity bit by bit through news coverage and discussions that the audience is not privy to, they remain fallible humans until the very end.

Queen & Slim is another essential piece of filmmaking for 2019. With two talented women behind the scenes with Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas, and two talented actors leading the way in front of the cameras, the assembly of all these elements was bound to produce something worthy of conversation. There are fears of where this story goes from the moment it starts, fears that it can’t end well for this unfortunate couple, but the journey there, no matter how it ends, is mesmerizing. In spite of all the intensity, the commentary, the fear, Queen & Slim is a love story. An undoubtedly unconventional, emotionally devastating one, but a love story nonetheless.

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