Movie Review: 'Queen and Slim' a Million Little Lies
Good Director, Great cast let down by by story with promise that doesn't deliver.
Queen and Slim has a unique origin story. The film is the directorial debut for music video director Melina Matsoukis and features a script by the hotter than hot actress and producer, Lena Waithe. Waithe’s script is where things get really interesting as it is based on an original idea by none other than James Frey, the man whose drug memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was once revealed to be riddled with falsehoods.
How involved Frey was in the making of Queen and Slim is unknown as is how his original idea ended up in the hands of Waithe and Matsoukas but here we are with Queen and Slim. The story follows a couple on a rather banal and unsuccessful first date that takes a definitive turn when the couple are pulled over by an aggressive police officer. The traffic stop turns tragic and the story kicks into gear from there.
Ernest (Daniel Kaluuya) was surprised when Angela (Jodie Turner-Smith) responded to his Tinder message a week after he’d sent it. During dinner, she explains that on this night, she didn’t want to be alone and he was the most attractive of the many TInder possibilities available. Unfortunately, her loneliness and his good nature only carry them so far and the date is a rather mundane affair.
Ernest is driving Angela home after dinner and the two are resigning themselves to not seeing each other again when Ernest playfully attempts to steal his phone back from Angela who was curiously scrolling his date playlist. In his playfulness, Ernest’s vehicle swerves a little and catches the attention of a police officer who initiates a traffic stop. Ernest is casual and polite while the officer is standoffish and aggressive.
Eventually, the officer asks Ernest to get out of the vehicle, something Angela advises him not to do. Angela is an attorney and she wants the officer to justify his actions which he refuses to do. The officer tells Ernest to open his trunk for a search. Ernest makes a joke and the cop pulls his gun and tells Ernest to get out of the car. Angela gets out of the car and tells the officer she is getting out her cellphone to record the stop. The angry officer turns to shoot Angela and Ernest lunges at him. The gun is dropped and ends up in Ernest’s hands and he shoots.
That’s where the narrative of Queen and Slim really kicks off. Angela advises Ernest to keep the gun and get in the car. He wants to stay and reason with the next officers on the scene but Angela feels she knows how that will end, with Ernest dead. She scares Ernest well enough that he’s willing to drive them both to New Orleans from Ohio where Angela’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a long time criminal, will be able to help them get out of the country.
The trailer for Queen and Slim gives the movie a feel of a modern day Bonnie & Clyde with a stronger eye toward social relevance. I was expecting for the couple to become folk heroes, symbols of a movement who slowly begin to fall in love. That kind of happens. I suppose that is the story we are getting here in Queen and Slim but the movie lacks a driving force narrative to bring these elements together.
By the economy of characters we can assume what the story is but in actually watching the movie, what we have are a series of scenes where Angela and Ernest argue and their bickering is more tiresome than revealing. It’s more realistic that these two strangers have no chemistry, it matches with their romance free date that began the story, but the movie could have used a charge of doomed romance well before the characters finally do give into each other.
Then there is the social relevance. The filmmakers are eager to adopt the relevance that the audience brings to the story but doesn’t have the nerve to try to create any relevance of its own. A small boy is inspired by Ernest and Angela having briefly met them and his fate has a charge to it but Angela and Ernest make no effort to connect their story to the larger story of police violence in America.
The story of Ernest and Angela is very straightforwardly about their attempt to get out of the country. There are no discussions of any other strategy, the film couches their situation in something akin to reality instead of making it a folk tale where the characters are representative of something really plaguing society. The lack of a bigger picture view by either Angela or Ernest or their most direct supporting players limits the narrative and the scope of the movie to something close to an action movie.
Director Matsoukas has a lovely eye for imagery and her sets and costumes are gorgeous to look at. Matsoukas and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe are a really good team and their visuals are far more interesting than the script by Lena Waithe, which lacks the bravado of a trailer that promises something more fiery than the bickering that turns into a tragic love affair of circumstance.
The performances in Queen and Slim are strong but they are let down by a series of inert and repetitive scenes in which Ernest and Angela narrowly avoid capture, temporarily find help from strangers, bicker, and repeat. The story relies on a lot of dumb luck in the escape scenes. The first escape involves the two accidentally accepting a ride from an unknowing Police Sheriff who happens to find out who they are in convoluted fashion only for them to make a lucky escape.
The most egregious moment has them fully captured by a cop who happens to also be black who makes the narrative convenient decision to allow them to escape. Too much of the plot relies on moments where if people did what was expected of them, the movie would end. The narrative conveniences pile up throughout and combine with the repetitiveness of other scenes to make Queen and Slim dramatically inert despite the strong performances by leads Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith.
Kaluuya and Turner-Smith have chemistry but they are stifled by a script that resists bringing them together too quickly. It may be more realistic for the two to be distanced but given that we have a limited window of time, the movie needed to have them bond faster for the relationship to gain the tragic energy needed to sell where we are headed in this story, whether they escape or they don't.
I wanted so much more from Queen and Slim and I cannot deny that my high expectations for the movie hurt my final opinion of the movie. I loved the look of the movie and the actors involved are stellar. It’s the story that doesn’t hold up. The story lacks conviction. The social conscience of the movie feels watered down for a more mainstream feel. The ending has power but that power is limited by the choppy, repetitive scenes that get us to that ending.
Perhaps the film mimics a bit of the life story of its creator Mr. Frey. The promise in the trailer for Queen and Slim could be a metaphor for how critics reacted to Mr Frey's famed book with praise for what people thought was Mr Frey's real story. The final product of Queen and Slim reflects the gap between what we thought was a fantastic and personal story written by Frey and the real story which was less dramatic and compelling.