Having cut her teeth on producing music videos for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna and Alicia Keys, Melina Matsoukas tries her hand at a feature-length film with 'Queen & Slim'. The end result is a film that touches on very timely issues with such a slow, heavy hand where the entire experience begins to weigh well before the credits roll, and not in a good way.
The titular Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, 'The Neon Demon') and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, 'Widows') are introduced on what can only be described as the world's most uncomfortable Tinder date. Uninterested in each other and acknowledging there will be no second date, the pair are interrupted on the drive home by an antagonistic (white) police officer. Slim is forced out of the car and is justifiably pissed, his attitude inadvertently causing the incident to go from dangerous to deadly, and soon he and Queen find themselves as a 21st century Bonnie and Clyde, on the run from a crime they know will result in their demise - even if they aren't the ones to blame.
Written by Lena Waithe (TV's 'Master of None'), 'Queen & Slim' is another entry in the legion of dramas that explore racism and police brutality, skewing far more to the dramatic side of the subgenre. It's therefore disappointing that the film is just so poorly written. The reason why Queen and Slim decide to make a run for it, even when they've acted in self-defence, is obvious - they know the colour of their skin makes them an instant target for police prejudice - but you wouldn't know from the way it hits its audience over the head with dramatic, sweeping dialogue. Turner-Smith and Kayuula are very gifted actors and try their best to make the words coming out of their mouths feel sincere rather than ripped from a protest poster. Matsoukas also does a really great job framing the entire first act in a way that feels tense and sympathetic towards her leads, but she doesn't appear to trust her own filmmaking to achieve her intended effect.
It should come as no surprise given her career that Matsoukas has a keen ear for music, and this is evident in how well-deployed the needle drops are in this film (Trey Edward Shults should have taken some inspiration before dumping Frank Ocean's discography into his recent film 'Waves'). Despite this, these moments are few and far between. The film goes out of its way to make baffling pacing choices that make its 132-minute run time not only incredibly unnecessary, but also laborious to get through. There is the argument that by pacing out the action, the film allows its leads to find beauty in the quieter moments of life and in each other, but it's hard to buy into this notion when these moments are either cut short by melodrama or filled with melodramatic dialogue.
Tonally, the film feels focused and angry, but the run time and frustrating pacing just makes it feel muddled.
Tonally, the film feels far more focused and angrier than Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman', but the run time and frustrating pacing just makes it feel muddled. The most tone-deaf of these is the scene where - wait for it - an intense sex scene is intercut with a violent black protest rally. While the scene itself is pretty well-edited (it works with the same energy as a music video), why these two particular scenes have been placed together is downright strange. Neither is focused on with enough energy to have the impact that each moment is going for; it's hard to be moved by a young man being swept up in racial violence when the moment keeps cutting back to Daniel Kayulla's bare ass. By splitting the scenes and pacing them out the film might not be as exciting as it wants to be, but each moment would be able to breathe and the slower moments bookmarking them would also feel less dull in comparison.
To its credit, 'Queen & Slim' features some pretty stellar performances and great camerawork but has to work against the mammoth influence of its writing and pacing to make something memorable, and ultimately fails. It's a shame because Matsoukas shows promise as a filmmaker and clearly has important things to say, but appears to buckle under the pressure of having to do so.