Grackles review Queen and Slim

Directed by Melina Matsuokas

Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli 

In Queen & Slim, Melina Matsuokas makes her feature film debut following the titular characters on a cross-country run on the lam as they are forced to evade the law after killing a police officer in self-defense during a traffic stop gone wrong. This wildly ambitious feature manages to update the classic getaway film and also seriously examines police violence towards people of color in America, while simultaneously taking the time to delicately track the doomed budding romance between the two title characters. This is Matsuokas’s first feature film, though she is the director of more than 30 music videos and recipient of two Grammy’s and four VMA’s.

The story begins with Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) on a first date that isn’t going very well. If things had gone differently, there probably wouldn’t have been a second date. When Slim is pulled over on the way home for dubious reasons, the traffic stop quickly spirals out of control, ending with Slim defending his and Queen’s life by killing the officer. From there, Queen and Slim hit the road, heading for New Orleans and beyond hoping to evade the law by any means necessary.

Scott Ray: I love a film with a good, long, cold open. I like it when the cold open is so long I forget we haven’t seen the title card yet. The first one I think of is Raising Arizona, but I think the opening to this film ranks right up there with it. I especially enjoy a cold open where things keep getting worse and worse and when the title card finally appears the gravity of what’s occurred to the characters makes it even more difficult to contemplate how the characters can possibly proceed. Everything that sets the film in motion happens in that cold open, the decisions Queen and Slim had no part in and the ones that they did.

The film looks and sounds fantastic. You can feel Matsuokas’s music video chops all through the film. The music choices are great and the visuals are always dynamic—the movie poster itself is a good preview of the visual choices Matsuokas makes throughout. Visually, it’s a movie of contrasts. Wide open rural expanses juxtaposed with crowded, brightly painted New Orleans houses. The emptiness of the road in contrast with a loud and sweaty Georgia juke joint. Dark nights and bright lights. And Matsuokas shows the road and the landscape constantly. It’s a road movie after all. The film loves to show the cars moving through rustic locales, away from the camera, towards the camera.

Charlie Riccardelli: Because she has such an accomplished background as a filmmaker, Matsuokas sidesteps a lot of the pitfalls that typically snare first-time directors, especially when it comes to trusting the visuals and an economy of storytelling. Queen & Slim takes place in vignettes as our heroes travel across the country meeting people, and many of those scenes have a kick to them because Matsuokas strings them together like little interconnected short stories that say as much about the people Queen and Slim encounter as it does them. You have Queen’s pimp uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) who’s suffering from mental trauma since the war, the black youth who takes some extreme lessons from the outlaws’ actions, or even a clerk at a gas station who moons over the sensation he feels when holding Slim’s gun.

Partway through the film, Earl refers to Queen and Slim as the ‘black Bonnie and Clyde”, and that’s no casual association. This movie lifts its sweaty romanticism and overcasting dread from Arthur Penn’s 1967 masterpiece, especially in how the outlaws are similarly informed by how they exist almost nontemporal from the world around them. Like Bonnie and Clyde, Queen & Slim has refashioned what could have been another genre exercise and infused it with this luscious style that I got lost in.

SR: The road movie aspects are what the film does best. It doesn’t hurt that both the lead performers do a great job with the material they’re given, which at times could be a tall order. I thought sometimes the dialogue called attention to the film’s feelings of its own grandiosity. At times, when climactic things were happening on the screen, the writing seemed to reach for heights it might not need to. Sometimes, when the music swelled, it seemed that perhaps the writer (Lena Waithe in her first feature screenplay) was imaging the words on billboards. The day to day, slice of life interactions between the characters seemed natural, but at more dramatic moments I could be pulled out of the film. Perhaps this is a case of the film trying to do too much.

CR: Queen & Slim certainly did too much for me. I was locked into the film throughout its first half, but the movie does dilute its power as it moves further into its 132-minute running time. To the filmmakers’ credit, they swing for the fences politically in a way that many modern movies are usually half-hearted about at best. Queen & Slim tackles racial violence by the police, Black Lives Matter, and the general politics of race in America. All of these are worthy to weave into the narrative, but I think they moved distractingly beyond the central relationship. I kept thinking of a the wonderful The Hate U Give from last year that so eloquently weaved together these elements, but it kept the story zeroed in on its teen hero. Queen & Slim tells so many stories that the film concludes at least three times trying to wrap up its lofty choices.

SR: I think the scenario that serves as the impetus for the road-movie, on the run element of this film is imminently interesting and filled with good tension—the characters are put in an awful situation and they get out the only way they can. In showing that scenario, revolving around a racist traffic cop who immediately escalates violence instead of being an official who protects and serves, the film highlights a very American problem that desperately needs to be talked about. It covers this issue in a nuanced way—when it stays focused on the characters of Queen and Slim.

The film falters when it breaks perspective. We begin the film tightly focused on the two title characters, and it stays that way for much of the film. Bonnie and Clyde didn’t keep its perspective completely focused on its title characters, but when it deviated it did so for purposes of advancing the plot. When Queen and Slim breaks perspective it is usually reaching for emotional payoff. The film would be more effective if it focused on just the story it set out telling.

Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.

Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.