Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 13, 2019 7:56 pm 
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DANIEL KALUUYA AND JODIE TURNER-SMITH IN QUEEN & sLIM

Heading south

Melina Matsoukas is a music video maker; this is her feature film debut, and it has some of the qualities of her original medium. The events might be the subject of a song. The action is often underlined or explained by swirling songs. This reads as a series of scenes strung together; in between there is sometimes a loss of momentum.

This is an intermittently exciting actioner with political overtones. At first we watch a black man and woman (played by two Brits, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar-nominated for Get Out, and Jodie Turner-Smith) at a diner one night in Cleveland on an unpromising Tinder date. As he is driving her home, a white cop belligerently pulls them over for failure to signal a turn and proceeds to menace them. This turns into a confrontation where the black man grabs the cop's gun and shoots him in self defense. This is the sort of thing that more often ends with the black driver's death. (The cop turns out to have previous black deaths on his record.)

As they head south with the aim of going to New Orleans, then Florida, and escaping to Cuba, a dashboard video from the police car goes viral. Thus they become accidental celebrity outlaws especially admired by some elements of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise genre acquires a whole new angle.

They are not delineated in detail; they don't acquire names till the end. She is a depressed, angry defense lawyer. He is quiet and religious and his license plate is "TRUSTGOD." At first they're too scared, but eventually they fall in love, or in lust, and have sex in one of the cars they grab on their run. This is intercut with a sketchy Ferguson style Black Lives Matter demonstration in which a boy they've met and influenced comes to grief. The mix is excruciating and ill-advised. The most interesting element in the plot is that they are not interested in each other - an element also used in Irving Penn's film by Clyde's implied impotence.

The most entertaining interlude comes earlier, when the pair seek help in New Orleans from the woman's colorful Uncle Earle (the amusing Bokeem Woodbine), a pimp with Iraq war PTSD living in a polyamorous relationship with two sex workers.

Matsouikos' music video experience seems to account for the absence of tight storytelling, as the scenes grow less memorable, it all seems to go on too long. Chloe Sevigny and Flea appear briefly as a couple providing a momentary hideaway. But they are colorless, and the episode feels unnecessary - not the only one that needed trimming or heightening.

The date, then the pull-over by the belligerent cop, escalating as we can imagine but ending with a surprise turnaround, makes for a vivid and memorable sequence. So does the one in the gas station when for a moment the man is threatened by the boy at the cash register holdiing the cop's Glock. Things start to go clearly downhill at an old fashioned funky black dive in the South where the couple dance sexy and drink bourbon and realize every single person there knows and supports them. Even if that's possible, it dilutes the excitement too much. When the couple agree they have to get out of there it feels like it's more because the scene's going nowhere than for any danger.

The two outlaws here are not committing a series of crimes, after the first one. The story concocted by the celebrated comedy writer Lena Waithe and the notorious novelist James Frey provides limited gratification. Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise are movies that are too iconic for this movie to bear comparison with them, or even with Badlands, The Sugarland Express, or Thieves Like Us.

It may be satisfying to see a racist cop taken down, but there's limited reward in the heroes becoming sought criminals and then martyrs. The conservative black gay Christian film critic Armond White's review describes Queen & Slim as "neo-Blaxploitation" and a"meme-movie for Black Lives Matter," and seems to consider the latter a fabrication to fill a void left by the departure of Obama. There is an uneasy relationship between the action and the ideas of the movie and the director's stated aim of making this like a reverse slave escape story isn't very clear.

Perhaps as A.O. Scott says in his New York Times review, this movie is "dreamy" and an "intense romance," and "sometimes almost languorous," and perhaps more invested in "the esthetics of life on the run" than the "politics of black lives." But that's why it goes on so long.

Matsoukas' skill with vignettes shows itself in scenes after the inevitable martyrdom of the doomed couple, a funeral with Uncle Earle in stylish black fur, people completing a handsome black and white mural depicting the pair as they looked on the run. These are the only moments that arouse emotion, but they are beautifully done.

Queen & Slim, 132 mins., debuted Nov. 14, 2019 at AFI Fest, and opened theatrically in the US and Canada Nov. 27. UK: Jan. 31, 2020. Metascore: 75%.

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