The 2010’s have been an astonishing decade for bold, diverse storytellers. Emerging filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins, Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele and Steve McQueen all making their own dent in the current cinematic landscape, forging the past for even more unique voices. With “Queen & Slim” you can add director Melina Mantsoukas and writer Lena Waithe as two new shining voices destined to make a large impact in the decades to come.
“Queen & Slim” tells a complex, powerful story of two conflicting personalities on the run together from the law. Not knowing their actual names until the films finale, we only know the two lead characters as “Queen” (Jodie Turner-Smith) and “Slim” (Daniel Kaluuya). In a gut-wrenching opening that finds the couple on the run after killing a Police Officer in self-defense after a lackluster first date, ‘Queen & Slim” makes a big impression that what you are about to see is something unique. Desperate, bickering and hoping to find a way out of the country, the two outlaws set out on an Odyssey-like journey that explores what it means to be black in today’s society and serves as a modern-day recontextualization of runaway slaves and the Underground railroad. A film with great potential that is (mostly) utilized.
Melina Mantsoukas, known for her music video work, specifically Beyonce’s now-legendary “Formation” music video, makes a powerful transition to the big screen. Her work behind the camera is consistently poetic, creating one of the most soulful experiences of the year. There is a certain scale to “Queen & Slim”, but Mantsoukas reigns things down to a quieter, more intimate scope. The warm cinematography by Tat Radcliffe is top-notch, with plenty of small visual cues that reflect the characters journey.
At its very core, “Queen & Slim” is about two lost souls slowly coming together and depending on one another. It’s a unique look at ever-growing romance, one that feels sensual and timely. The core dynamic between the two leads goes a long way. Waithe’s script wisely sidesteps melodrama, offering a poignant journey full of urgency and insight. It’s also filled with great character depth, as we continuously learn about each character as the film progresses. This is a film that cares more about the smaller moments in the journey, rather than the bigger, more heightened dramatic moments. It’s less concerned with typical storytelling and instead about rich characters and palpable atmosphere. The warmer, tender moments prove to be the most affecting. A scene where the two leads find solace at a Jazz bar is moving in all the best ways. As both characters slowly lean on each other to reach their destination, you can’t help but feel for them every step of the way.
Both Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith deliver elegant, layered performances. Kaluuya as the more laid back, assured one of the two and Smith as the more defiant, headstrong one, both proving an excellent “ying” to the others “yang”. Smith, in her first big starring role, masterfully portrays her characters strength and her vulnerability in a performance that is sure to make the actress a household name in the near future. Both actors chemistry with each other is electric, making a truly memorable on-screen couple. We also meet an array of characters boasted by an impeccable supporting cast. Bokeem Woodbine is as good as he’s ever been as Queen’s estranged, pimp uncle that provides the couple with a car and enough money to get to where they’re going. Flea and Chloe Sevigny make the most of their limited screentime as a white couple that provide a brief safe haven for the outlaws. The film’s rich soundtrack with an array of artists from Megan Thee Stallion, Vince Staples, Bilal and Lauryn Hill effectively aids in heightening Mantsoukas’s hypnotic direction, often giving the film a haunting edge.
“Queen & Slim” is so impressive and strong, it’s all the more disappointing when it makes a large misstep. Some script conveniences range from annoying to maddening. A few scenes early on flat-out don’t work, mostly feeling like filler. A scene where Slim attempts to stick up a gas station in hopes of getting free gas, only to let the station clerk hold his loaded gun is a particular head-scratcher. It’s some of these trappings a number of first-time filmmakers run into that really bring down the overall experience of “Queen & Slim”. Thankfully, these missteps are greatly outnumbered by what the film gets so wonderfully right.
“Queen & Slim” is a flawed, but important film. A film that could only be made today, yet also feels tragically timeless. This is a fierce debut from director Melina Mantsoukas and writer Lena Waithe that stays with you long after you see it.