Queen & Slim (Canada-US, 2019)

Fateful meeting

African-American themed films tend not to play well at the UK box office and so it was good to see Cineworld taking a risk with what is essentially a throwback to the early ’70s New Hollywood movie; it’s certainly not straightforward multiplex fodder. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) meet on a Tinder date and then find trouble with a racist cop. What follows is a road movie, hopefully to freedom, where they discover much about each other and something about racially divided America.

There’s so much in this film that impresses especially as most of the principals are feature film debutants: director Melina Matsoukas (known for music video, particularly Beyoncé’s Formation), scriptwriter Lena Waithe (based on an idea by James Frey) and Turner-Smith who turns in a (hopefully) star-making performance. Kaluuya executive produced, no doubt helping get the reported $17m budget, and matches his co-star with another superb turn.

Although the film is set in the present, Matsoukas has made the mise en scene timeless to an extent: the cars are old fashioned; a youngster takes a photograph using a camera; the brilliantly chosen music runs the gamut of the last fifty years. In addition, the script isn’t particularly concerned with realism as some of the plotting strains credulity a little (the encounter with the sheriff for instance) however as the film is operating more an a symbolic level, rather than trying to convince us we are seeing a window on the world, that isn’t a problem. Occasionally, we hear dialogue which the characters aren’t speaking, though it’s relevant to the scene; another anti-realist device.

Road movies are usually about ‘finding yourself’ and/or the place the characters live in. Five Easy Pieces (US, 1970) and The Sugarland Express (which shares the outlaw narrative) are two examples from New Hollywood cinema where, it seemed, the director truly called the shots; Bob Rafelson and Steven Spielberg respectively. Ironically it was the latter’s Jaws (1975) that led to the producer-led Hollywood that still predominates; he has continued to churn out personal movies, some of which are interesting. The ending of Queen & Slim, in particular, reminded me of films from that time. Although a precursor of New Hollywood, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is an explicit reference point for the film.

Despite its sort-of timelessness, the film is obviously about #BlackLivesMatter and so is resolutely contemporary; it shares this theme with the also excellent The Hate U Give. Every review I’ve read has criticised the cutting between the sex scene (involving the protagonists) and a demonstration against police racism. For me it worked in contrasting the personal (these were two lonely people who were seeking love) and the political (the colour of their skin compromises their existence because America is a racist society): why should people have to protest to live their lives without police harassment?

The film’s done decent business in America and I hope it does so in the UK; if independent cinema starts channeling the aesthetics of early ’70s Hollywood we should live in interesting times.

Iconic image?

One aspect I wasn’t sure about was the image (above) that became representative, in the film, of injustice against POC; it’s obviously drawing on a negative stereotype of African-Americans as pimps and whores (the clothes were borrowed from Queen’s pimp uncle). Candice Frederick, in Film Comment, suggests, ‘Queen and Slim attempt to masquerade as the confident, badass celebrities their public expects them to be.’ That seems to be persuasive except it’s clear that when they put on their disguises they are in a hurry rather than choosing how to look. However, the film is too knowing not to be using this without intention. Presumably, because we know what the characters are actually like we can see beyond the representation and understand how reductive the stereotype is.

 

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