Tuesday 4 February 2020

Something mild: "Queen & Slim"

One small sign of positive representational progress within the film industry is that there's been a greater abundance of worthy projects featuring black talent in 2019-20 for the American and British Academies to nod towards or disregard: the past two months alone have thrown up such titles as Harriet, Just Mercy and Waves for voters to wrestle with. This week's Queen & Slim is generically closer to blaxploitation than any of these aspirant prestige pictures: it's a lovers-on-the-run movie, pairing mild-mannered Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and forthright lawyer Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) on a first date that gets unexpectedly extended and redirected after their car is pulled over by a traffic cop with a hairtrigger temper. Yet it runs 131 minutes, by no means a natural running time for a grungy B-picture, and certainly not one for a film about fleet-footed kids being pursued through the night. (It's a full six minutes longer than the Harriet Tubman movie, which feels doubly counterintuitive.) Not once do we feel the dogs of law snapping hard on the protagonists' heels; what writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas present us with here is really a lovers-on-an-amble movie, a lovers-on-a-carefully-soundtracked-Sunday-drive-through-the-most-picturesque-neighbourhoods movie. Your mileage may vary; this viewer found himself wanting someone to put their foot on the gas from a very early stage.

That picturesqueness was never in doubt once Matsoukas, who previously oversaw Beyoncé's "Formation" video, assumed the director's chair. Queen & Slim's first hour offers a visually striking tour of Edward Hopper structures in a snowy Ohio nowhere; even the flophouses and gas station bathrooms the pair pass through look photoshoot-ready. Yet Matsoukas spends so much time composing a pretty picture that she forgets to make it move - and when it does, it frequently lurches forwards in bizarre, irrelevant directions. A scene where the couple pull over so that Slim can ride a horse - always high on my priorities list when I'm being pursued for murder - is one of several that fair scream "Delete me". (What happened to producers leaning over the shoulders of rookie directors in the edit suite? Is that forbidden in the post-Weinstein climate? Or is it that you get carte blanche once you've worked with Beyoncé?) All the footdragging leaves ample time to spot the inconsistencies in Waithe's characterisation - the kind of pretzel story logic that a brisker, nimbler movie could yank us around or through. Queen & Slim is premised on a weird personality flip that makes zero sense. After being wildly aggressive with the cop who pulls the couple over, our Queen reverts to meekness, the lioness of those early, edgy encounters suddenly and inexplicably replaced by a freefloating perfume-ad voiceover recounting what she's looking for in a man; come up with a justifying rationale for that, and you're still faced with Slim's entirely arbitrary progression from God-fearing schnook to enthusiastic gunslinger.

The idea may have been to level out in transit a decidedly odd couple - she tall and tersely unsmiling, every inch the former model Turner-Smith is, he shorter, squatter and goofier, operating in another league, if not another sport altogether - but this pair never entirely convinced me as a pair. (Even Queen admits there wouldn't have been a second date, had fate not intervened.) Patchy acting hardly helps their cause. It's always a pleasure to catch up with Bokeem Woodbine, bringing a droll energy to the role of Queen's deadbeat pimp uncle, but Kaluuya proves unusually anonymous for the first time in his big-screen career, and Turner-Smith is visibly hesitant in her responses, either because she too is trying to work out who her character really is, or because she knows she has the indignity of a backseat sex scene intercut with a Black Lives Matter protest to navigate. (Again, where were the producers to tell Matsoukas this doesn't work? A Roger Corman would have zealously counselled her to keep the canoodling, but also to separate it out from any messaging.) What's both promising and frustrating about Queen & Slim is that it has some of the bold impulses and wayward, transgressive energy you want from a B-movie, but it's too busy throwing poses to land the political points it wants to land, and it lets in way too much dead air while waiting for the next cool or zeitgeisty idea to pop into its pretty head. Pretty it certainly is, but you know your lovers-on-the-lam have too much time on their hands when the camera catches them grooving along to - of all artists - Luther Vandross. 

Queen & Slim is now playing in selected cinemas.

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