First Date, Kinda Nervous: ‘Queen & Slim’

queen-slim-jodie-turner-smith-daniel-kaluuya.jpgNo matter how many bad Tinder dates you’ve been on, you’ve never been on one that went as awry as Queen and Slim’s.

Queen & Slim begins in the midst of an awkward first date between the title characters. (They’re never referred to as Queen or Slim during the film. Their actual names are referenced only once, in passing. But they’re credited as Queen and Slim.) It’s immediately clear in the opening shot that this will also be their last date — their chemistry is totally off. Jodie Turner-Smith’s Queen sits rigidly, dressed up for a much nicer dinner than the one she’s having, and Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim is aloof, clearly not the kind of guy who’s going to impress a girl like this. Little by little, they warm up to one another, but not enough for us to anticipate a second encounter. Slim will drop Queen off at home, and that will be that.

Of course, fate has other plans in store. Slim is pulled over for failing to use a turn signal. The cop abuses his authority and makes unnecessary demands. Queen and Slim try to assert their rights as citizens. The cop does not take kindly to them questioning his methods. The situation escalates. Queen is injured; the cop is killed. There’s not much of an upside to turning themselves in, so they go on the run.

QUEEN & SLIMQueen & Slim is being touted as a black Bonnie And Clyde, but that’s not exactly an apt comparison. Bonnie and Clyde chose a life of crime and killed over a dozen people doing it. The title characters in Queen & Slim are law-abiding citizens who get detained without just cause by a racist cop. What happens after is a matter of self-preservation. The characters in Queen & Slim have varied opinions about whether or not what Queen and Slim have done is justified, but all agree that the odds are unfairly stacked against this duo merely because they’re African-American. She’s an ambitious lawyer; he’s a sober retail sales associate who is actively religious. Nothing about these people signals  wrongdoing — except the color of their skin.

Queen & Slim could have gone in several directions — a tense getaway thriller, a road trip dramedy, or a crime-tinged romantic caper. It nods in those directions, satisfying the requirements of each. But at heart, it’s a political powder keg, the most potent dramatization of police violence against African-Americans we’ve seen recently. The topic has seen a lot of action on the big screen lately — in Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Monsters & Men, and Detroit, to name a few — but writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas take the current events relevance to the next level by staging Queen & Slim as a fantasy, like a noble inversion of Natural Born Killers. It makes heroes out of characters who are usually casualties. It makes the daring decision to mythologize itself.queen-and-slim-bokeem-woodbine.jpgOrdinarily, that wouldn’t work. But in 2019, we’re weary of headlines about unarmed African-Americans being shot by cops, of all the myriad ways the system is stacked against people of color. So I was ready for a story that let the victims of this violence get the upper hand, for a change. I was ready to root for Queen and Slim to get away with it, however unlikely that would seem. Waithe and Matsoukas are clearly fed up with a system that allows cops to kill unarmed citizens without consequence, and so are most of the black characters we meet in Queen & Slim. The film allows us to go beyond feeling angry and helpless, inviting us to experience an array of other emotions — hopeful, empathetic, apprehensive, exhilarated — before Queen and Slim’s journey concludes.

Queen & Slim isn’t a revenge fantasy in the way that Django Unchained is. It’s far more tethered to the real world, but Matsoukas prefers sweeping, cinematic overtures to gritty realism. The film is unabashedly romantic amidst these tragic circumstances, ultimately more Romeo And Juliet than Bonnie And Clyde. Perhaps it’s best described as a gender-balanced version of Breathless, substituting soul for Godard’s French New Wave attitude.

jodie-turner-smith-queen-and-slim.jpgMusic video director Matsoukas has composed a remarkably confident feature film debut, one that isn’t afraid to yearn and ache— or pause, to let its characters speak from the heart, or enjoy an unlikely moment of grace. Once they go on the lam, Queen and Slim come alive in ways they weren’t before; in that way, the story plays as much like a coming-of-age story as anything else.

Queen & Slim goes big and goes for broke, and in doing so, allows us to invest in the dynamic between these characters the same way we might get caught up in the romance between Jack and Rose in Titanic, or Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. Those may seem like unusual points of comparison, but Matsoukas imbues Queen & Slim with a similarly epic scope, albeit in the modern context of Tinder and fake news and dash cam videos gone viral. Through Queen and Slim, victims of police violence get to live another day, and leave behind the legacy they were robbed of in real life.

This isn’t the way it really happens. But that’s what the movies are for — to imagine the possibilities, to give life to legends, to immortalize the silenced.les-miserables-2019-ladj-lyLadj Ly’s Les Misérables examines similar circumstances through various perspectives, spending more time with the cops than their targets. The film gives us a 360-degree view of Montfermeil, a troubled neighborhood where tensions between ethnicities run high. It’s Stéphane first day on the job as a cop in an anti-crime unit; he soon finds that his squad mates, Chris and Gwada, are tougher on the locals than he’d like. A neighborhood kid named Issa steals a lion cub from a rival’s circus, escalating tensions with the neighborhood gypsies. The cops solve the case (aided by Instagram) and apprehend Issa, but the blowback leads to a wrongful shooting, all caught on camera by a roving drone flown by another neighborhood kid.

Les Misérables isn’t a musical — it merely nods to Victor Hugo’s novel, the source of its title, which takes place in the same neighborhood, albeit several centuries earlier. But it is similarly about the desperation of the poor and maligned, represented here by a Muslim community that decides, one day, that they’ve had enough. In Montfermeil, everyone is always ready for a fight — the tough guys, the kids, the cops. In fact, that seems to be the routine — there’s no pretense that the cops are going to solve anything. They’re just here to clean up a mess, and do the same thing again tomorrow.

Les Misérables takes its time building up to a youth-led revolt. Just when you think Ly is going for an ill-advised happy ending, this simmering hotbed of rage and repression finally boils over. Like Queen & Slim, it plays out a fantasy in which the victims of race-fueled police brutality gain the advantage — a violent, morally murky catharsis for the distrust and disillusion we feel for those who abuse their authority, and the systems that perpetuate this cycle. In 2019, it seems the movies have stopped merely mourning the fallen — they’re hungry for vengeance.les-miserables-ladj-ly.jpg

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