As with film dramas involving fugitives on the run and in love, “Queen & Slim” is being billed as an urbanized “Bonnie and Clyde.” But the similarities between these two pairs end with a male and female running from the law.
Actually, comparing the fictional experience of anti-heroes in the film – which opened in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 27 starring Daniel Kaluuya and Sophie Turner-Smith – to the often romanticized, yet real-life exploits of the outlaw couple speaks to the weaponization of blackness that African Americans suffer through on a daily basis.
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were homicidal criminals who traveled the country killing and stealing at will. Nearly a dozen police officers and four innocent civilians were allegedly among the couple’s body count before their lives came to an end in a hail of bullets during a police ambush just outside of Gibsland, Louisiana in 1934. A 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway cemented the romanticizing of Bonnie and Clyde in the love for each other as opposed to their lust for robbery, mayhem and murder.
The life experiences of Queen and Slim couldn’t be more different from Bonnie and Clyde. The pair meet up for a first date in Cleveland, where they both live. Things are going well enough between them – until they are pulled over by police. Because of her line of work, Queen is well-versed in their rights. Slim is a law-abiding citizen looking to make the least waves possible so he can live through the traffic stop. Their seemingly mundane lives take a drastic turn when they are forever bonded upon meeting after an encounter with a police officer motivated by racial profiling turns from bad to worse.
A life-altering moment as Slim fears for his life forces them to leave everything they know. They come to agree that running from a racist justice system that they feel will certainly presume their guilt and protect the implied innocence of law enforcement in officer-involved situations is their only option.
The story by James Frey and Lena Waithe is the feature film debut by popular music video and episodic television director Melina Matsoukas.
And while likening Queen and Slim to Bonnie and Clyde is problematic, so is the messaging for the well-intentioned film – some of which runs the risk of deepening the divide as far as the complicated relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community.
The film is effective in capturing the righteous anger of a community that is unjustly targeted and preyed upon by law enforcement. But “Queen and Slim” goes too far left in its implications that black people condone, protect and are inspired by reciprocating violence against police as a result of their experiences with law enforcement.
Matsoukas is bold with her cinematic choices. Some risks are rewarded – particularly the moments of passion and pure connection between her two lead characters. Others fail, particularly when she hovers over certain scenes and toys with the dubbing of the actors’ voices for an arthouse effect. But her potential as a filmmaker – if given the proper narrative to tell –is vividly clear.
The actors also make the most of the flawed story.
Turner-Smith and Kaluuya exude a natural chemistry as they come to know each other over the course of their heart-pounding interstate chase that sees them taking extreme measures to stay one step ahead of the law. Turner-Smith is even more hollow than the detachment her character has been forced to develop over the years to cope with extenuating family circumstances. But Kaluuya perfectly tugs at heartstrings with his attempts to get Queen to open her fiercely guarded heart.
Bokeem Woodbine lends a certain charm and finesse as Queen’s Uncle Earl – the Iraqi war veteran-turned-hustler whose mental and emotional health became collateral damage because of the atrocities he witnessed while serving his country.
“Queen & Slim” opened in theaters nationwide on November 27. The film is rated R with a running time of 132 minutes.