‘Queen & Slim’ Is An Unforgettably Intense Ride

by Jonah Desneux on December 4, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

In 1960, director Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema with the release of his iconic film Breathless. The film begins abruptly as its infamous protagonist Michel, shoots and kills a police officer in an act of defiance to emulate the actions of the dangerous men he idolizes in films. In his odyssey of escape, Michel finds Patricia in Paris and the two metaphorically put on different masks throughout the film, trying out different “roles” they want to be. Whether it’s the hard-boiled male, the femme fatal, or star crossed lovers, Breathless masterfully tells the story of both cinema and humanity by examining the roles we as people choose to play every day.

Almost 60 years later director Melina Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe explore a similar story arc with a pair of lovers on the run from the law in Queen & Slim. Unlike Michel and Patrica, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) do not have the privilege to decide the roles they want to be. As a black man and woman in America, the film brilliantly focuses on how those roles have already been decided for them by the individuals around them. They may be regarded as devious criminals to some, inspirations to others, so the movie Queen & Slim touches on many deep racial issues and underlines them by allowing its characters to shine as individuals in their self-discovery against a world that desperately tries to define them.

Queen & Slim begins at a diner where its central characters have their first date as strangers who met on a dating app. The differences between the couple are evident but their inherent chemistry is undeniable. On the way home from their date, the two are stopped by a police officer. The dramatic situation is quick to escalate as the officer’s cruelty is shown and in an act of self-defense, the cop’s life is taken. Knowing how the situation looks as black individuals, Queen and Slim know that their lives are now on the line and running is their own chance of survival.  

Queen & Slim pays great homage to the films like Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde that have clearly inspired it, but the film never has trouble finding its own originality. The film pulls no punches in displaying its message and leaves audiences with little room to feel anything but sympathy and rage. Matsoukas allows the anger of the film to be present and in your face. It is meant to provoke and based on my audience’s uncontrollable vocal disgust at some moments, it is successful. However, alongside the intensity, the film impressively captures the beauty of the character’s personal growth and the blossoming of their love for one another. This odd combination of outrage and marvel is best described as a pulsing pure passion that comes to life on screen.

The anxious tone the film casts is also an important note. With the high stakes and the allure of the characters, every scene is one of great tension and fear. Like a horror movie, it’s hard to not watch some moments without your hands covering your eyes. However, there is a deep sadness with this feeling. Why should I fear for these characters being caught by the police the same way I do for the teens on Elm Street being caught by Freddy Krueger? This self-reflection is nothing but depressing and speaks for how well-crafted and important the film is.

Much of Queen & Slim takes place in a car and instead of having stale shots that come to be expected in limited locations like this, the cinematography is used as a weapon to amplify the trapped emotions of the characters and create a provocation of its own. Though the characters are on an open road that usually symbolizes freedom, they are anything but free. The creative camera placement follows them from behind the car like prey being stalked. The immaculate tracking shots high in the sky also highlights how the characters are not only running from the law, but also their fate.

Daniel Kaluuya continues to prove that he is one of the greatest working actors today and possibly the best at his age at his young age of 30. The evolution of Slim throughout the film is fascinating and Kaluuya gives his all in showcasing his character’s complicated psyche. Like the filmmakers, Kaluuya is superb in balancing the drastically different emotions of his character. The root of this comes from his connection to exhibiting the humanity of his character. While members of both sides have certain expectations for him, Slim is just a character that just wants to be left be. Kaluuya is perfect in highlighting the weight the character faces, while also showing the charm of his simplicity.

Jodie-Turner Smith might not be as big of a name as Kaluuya, but after this performance, she will be. The growth of Queen and the unpacking of her troubled past is as gripping as the film’s thrilling escape scenes. Smith excels at opening herself up as a performer, to let viewers see what’s deep inside the character. What is to be discovered is shocking and leads to much self-reflection. Smith transforms into the character and plays brilliantly to her highs and her lows. Her confidence is left to be envied and allows her to be in the conversation for the best performance of the year.

Given its nature, its surprising how somberly paced Queen & Slim is. The camera always delightfully lingers when the scene should be over just to have one last fleeting moment with the characters. The pacing plays greatly with the character’s personal growth, but it does build up a bit of impatience in anticipating the next big turn of events that will knowingly come. Though it’s not the fault of the filmmakers for creating this impatience, certain expectations from the fast pace of the first scene are warranted in leaving you wanting a “wow” moment that never quite comes. There are many many intense and powerful scenes, but the film never has that one scene that will be continued to be talked about for years to come.

Though she isn’t religious, Queen thanks God for giving her breath. This breath comes from the authenticity that comes with her character, that comes from her discovery of herself. Instead of projections placed upon her and Slim, the film transcends a traditional narratives and allows the characters to not only play with who they want to be, or who they expected to be but instead they find who they actually are. They are not Patricia in Michel, who try on different masks for different roles. Queen and Slim are stripped from their clothes and put on disguises, but instead of being victims of a tragedy they discover the importance of personal honesty. It is this honesty that allows themselves to find their legacy and never become breathless.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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