Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in QUEEN & SLIM | ©2019 Universal Pictures

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in QUEEN & SLIM | ©2019 Universal Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Flea, Chloe Sevigny, Indya Moore
Writer: Lena Waithe, story by James Frey & Lena Waithe
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: November 27, 2019

As QUEEN & SLIM begins, Earnest (Daniel Kaluuya) and Angela (Jodie Turner-Smith) are on their first date, set up on Tinder. They are young, attractive, black and live in the same part of Ohio, but otherwise wouldn’t seem to have much in common. Earnest is a faithful churchgoer who works as a clerk at a big box store, is close to his family, and is searching for that special someone. Angela is an atheist who identifies with her job as a defense attorney and prefers to be alone (she’s making an exception tonight).

The first date might be the last, except that, while driving Angela to her home, Earnest is pulled over by a police cruiser for failing to use his signal. The cop is white, easily angered, and turns what ought to be at worst a traffic ticket into a life or death crisis.

We are absolutely on Earnest’s side in what comes next – there is no other action that seems available to him if he wants to survive. This leaves Earnest and Angela on the run together, neither one prepared to be a fugitive, and each a virtual stranger to the other.

Director Melina Matsoukas takes an approach somewhere between naturalistic and lyrical to the screenplay by Lena Waithe, from a story by James Frey & Waithe. There are dreamy stretches of road trip and taking in unexpected scenery, interspersed with real tension as danger looms. Running from the law doesn’t come easily to either of the main characters, though Angela’s background as a lawyer gives her a better idea of what to do. They eventually come up with an iffy plan to save their lives, and much of the momentum of the film hinges on whether or not this will work.

There’s a nationwide hunt by law enforcement for the duo. Angela and Earnest are startled to find that, in certain quarters, they’re folk heroes, seen as righteously standing up against the epidemic of (mostly white) police shooting unarmed black people.

The movie is also a love story, although it’s a bit one-sided. Angela comes to let her guard down and rethinks her position on relationships, thanks to both Earnest’s steady decency and the urgency of their flight. Earnest loves Angela, but QUEEN AND SLIM doesn’t let us see her affect him much. He’s so wired to want a romantic partner from the get-go that it’s unclear if he’s falling for Angela herself, or simply for the situation. This may be asking a little too much of the movie – there’s a lot going on – but while Earnest grows in courage and purpose, it doesn’t seem motivated by anything specific about Angela. She is transformed by love; he’s already there.

 QUEEN & SLIM movie poster | ©2019 Universal Pictures

QUEEN & SLIM movie poster | ©2019 Universal Pictures

Kaluuya enlists our empathy as a kind, ordinary man who rises to an impossible occasion. Turner-Smith convinces with every side of Angela’s character, from guarded professional to frightened runner to someone able to live her life for the first time, even while under dire threat. Bokeem Woodbine provides staunch support as an eventual ally.

QUEEN & SLIM is a what-if examination of what would happen if someone tried to change the outcome of a police shooting in progress, not only to the people involved, but to citizens and police at large. The film doesn’t break down purely along racial lines: there are some good white people, some less-than-good black people, and some upstanding cops. We are caught up in the story and with the characters while we’re viewing. Still, the biggest, most resonant question here is what can and/or should be done in the face of unprovoked violence by police against people of color in the moment. It doesn’t have answers, but QUEEN & SLIM is definitely food for thought.

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