A Tinder date between the two title characters in Queen & Slim (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya, respectively) goes horribly wrong after they get pulled over by a cop (Sturgill Simpson, weirdly) so cartoonishly racist that he draws his gun when Slim mentions that it’s cold outside. After a struggle, the officer is killed, and Queen, a lawyer who knows what’s in store for them in the criminal “justice” system, convinces Silm that their only choice is to go on the run. It’s a setup tailor-made for some quintessential exploitation; a tried-and-true genre template on which to graft some righteous political anger that can ride right along side pulpy thrills and uncomfortable sex and violence. At one point someone actually calls these two the “Black Bonnie and Clyde,” but that legendary American new wave entry wasn’t as safe as this one by half, and moments like that only underline the ways in which Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe’s film looks good on paper but fumbles the execution.
Matsoukas’ visuals are as precise as in her tremendous music video work but applied to this sort of would-be exploitation it lacks grit, all airless tableau that one might easily call evocative, but evocative of what, exactly? Images of prison roadside work gangs only provide the most obvious of symbols, an easy counterpoint to the lush highway backdrops the couple passes through in endless driving montages. These languid digressions make the film seem desperate to bend itself toward an almost meditative, fantastical tone, existing in a surreality that clashes very insistently with both the lovers on the run story at its core and the dire stakes of the issues it’s claiming, accidentally or not removing momentum, jeopardy, desperation. The political provocations of its narrative remain just that; with one vaguely incoherent exception (a juxtaposition of an anti-police riot that ends in tragedy with a car-backseat sex scene) there’s very little here that’s confrontational, and what remains is calculated mainly to reinforce what we already know, what we’re already comfortable being (very correctly, but still) angry about. That Bonnie and Clyde comparison someone mentioned just doesn’t stack up; Bonnie and Clyde were outlaws, straight-up killers, while Queen and Slim aren’t allowed to be anything more than martyrs.