A story of an African-American couple who kill a racist cop in self-defense, go on the run and become popular symbols of inequality in the U.S., “Queen & Slim” both realistically addresses infuriating realities and aims for the stars and the mythic. The film has lots to say and says it with verve, but a shortage of romantic heat diminishes its dramatic impact.
Directed and written, respectively. by two accoladed women — Melina Matsoukas (HBO’s “Insecure”), making her feature debut, and Lena Waithe (Netflix’s “Master of None”) — the film is a lovers-on-the-lam adventure laced with black-lives-matter themes. Centering on an accidental crime couple, it brings to mind “Thelma and Louise.” (Waithe has cited 1996’s “Set It Off” as an influence.)
Queen and Slim — not their real names, but reflective of the iconic light they’re cast in — are an African-American pair who, in the opening scene, set at an Ohio diner, are on their first date. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a hardworking, cynical defense attorney. Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) is an easygoing, religious Costco employee. Sparks aren’t flying.
Slim wants to get to know Queen better. No offense, but no need, Queen says.
A horrible experience binds them together. A white racist cop pulls the pair over for a minor traffic violation, and the escalating situation culminates with Slim killing the officer in self-defense.
Knowing that the courts won’t treat them fairly, the two flee.
When the incident, captured on the dead cop’s body camera, goes viral. Queen and Slim become celebrities. Some regard them as public enemies; for others, especially members of neglected nonwhite communities, they’re folk heroes. At a black nightclub, patrons recognize and warmly welcome the couple, for example.
Characters they visit during their getaway include Queen’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a war veteran and pimp. At his place, the couple change their car and their look.
Driving through the Deep South, amid the chaos and uncertainty, the two fall in love, passionately.
There’s plenty to embrace in this film, which addresses what it means to be black in this country and illuminates unrealized black dreams.
The first-date segment contains sharply scripted dialogue and the cop incident transpires harrowingly.
Bright neonoir colors and a hip-hop soundtrack heighten the mood. Matsoukas’ expressive palette impresses.
At the same time, the movie doesn’t sizzle. The romantic element is a substantial part of the reason why.
The passionate love the protagonists purportedly share tends to reveal itself only when the plot demands. Even then, it’s low on fire. Consequently, the climax — and the filmmakers aim high — doesn’t produce the necessary emotional effect.
Credibility issues, including a late-inning act of violence, also prove problematic. Cross-cutting between the couple’s lovemaking in the car and an anti-police-violence demonstration in the streets trivializes both scenarios.
Kaluuya, a wonderful actor, transcends the story’s shortcomings. He’s a highlight of this 132-minute mix of missed opportunities and stellar moments.
Turner-Smith, in her first major big-screen role, works less magic but establishes herself as someone to watch for.
Queen & Slim
Two and a half stars
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine
Written by: Lena Waithe
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes