Monday, December 16, 2019

The bad first date hall of fame


An imagistic journey to, well, a certain kind of freedom, I guess.  Queen & Slim is gut-wrenching and bittersweet, current and sadly timeless alike.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Written by Lena Waithe and James Frey

Spoiler alert: moderate

"Moderate spoilers," I say, but surely only as moderate as circumstances allow: it's sufficiently difficult to place Queen & Slim in its film historical context without saying "it's like Bonnie & Clyde" that Queen & Slim's own screenplay didn't bother trying; it probably isn't even halfway through before a character describes its central duo explicitly as "the black Bonnie and Clyde."  Which has been a low-key annoyance for me ever since I saw the first trailer for it—in part because a line like that is lousy trailer fodder, but mostly because they just aren't, and therefore neither is their movie.  Especially since if that kind of reductionism had to be applied, it's vastly more Thelma & Louise.

Now, this is a good thing in my book: I rate Thelma & Louise a lot higher than Bonnie & Clyde, and I remain surprised there's anyone who doesn't.  But that does mean "spoilers" either way: whether your touchstone for Queen & Slim is Bonnie & Clyde or Thelma & Louise, they do end pretty much the same way; and so there's not much point in pretending that just naming those films wouldn't immediately tell you how this film ends, too.  Not that you likely need any touchstone anyway: all by itself, Queen & Slim makes "how it's going to end" exceedingly plain.

Yet for some damnfool reason I'm not sure I can even quite pin down—whether it was sheer investment (because that central duo is largely very likeable), or a desire for a fairer world (even if it's only make-believe), or merely my own stupid notion that this outlaw movie might be banking on subverting the usual outlaw movie tropes—whatever it might've been, Queen & Slim halfway-convinced me that, this time, maybe there actually was some other way out.  Which is an astounding achievement, all things considered.  It's a testament to the skill director Melina Matsoukas and leads Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith brought to their film, expertly hitching your journey to the desperate hopes of their protagonists, and threading a difficult needle in pursuit of two equally important but somewhat divergent goals.

The first, aggressively transparent one, of course, was to create a pair of instant folk heroes, a pair of characters who remain conspicuously unnamed until so deep into the film that it doesn't matter anymore, and who have been rendered so deliberately archetypal that I don't know what else we could call them, except for Queen and Slim—even if, notably, nobody in their movie ever does.  And so, starting with those names, and with one of the great opening credits sequences, Queen & Slim loads them and the world around them with a heaping helping of flattening iconography, not usually very subtly, of the kind that explicitly marks them out in presentation and in dialogue as vessels for ideas that are much bigger than they are, or could be.  The film's second goal, however, involved a pair of actual human beings, custom-built figures who, nevertheless, remained two real people with real lives, real personalities, real bodies, and real minds.  And it accomplishes that goal, too, offering up its "Queen" and "Slim" as deeper entities than the broad two-dimensional myths their circumstances have made of them—even if all we get to see of their lives and personalities are the small bits and pieces they managed to salvage from the ruins of the night they had to go on the run.

Queen & Slim opens up on a woman who's belatedly (like, three weeks belatedly) reached out to a Tinder match—one doesn't imagine that Tinder provided any consideration for this product placement—and has been disconcertingly honest that the only reason she's out on a date with him at all is because she's had an especially bad day.  She's a defense attorney whose client received the death penalty earlier that afternoon.  Needing human company and evidently having nowhere else to get it, it doesn't seem to improve her mood; she's almost belligerently open about how even the minimal interest she initially had in him has been eroded by her perception of his personality (that is, cheap, religious, and boring).  Whatever enthusiasm he had rapidly diminishes as well, and he goes through the grinding motions of a bad date solely in the hopes that maybe he'll still get laid.  As she points out, there's not even an outside chance.  Then, literally moments before they can put this lousy night behind them, they get pulled over by a cop.

Here, things get much worse, and they become bound to one another for, practically speaking, the rest of their lives: the cop, as cops are wont to do, attempts to turn a traffic stop into an ad hoc execution; the woman's leg is struck by a grazing shot from his sidearm; the man defends her, and himself, and in the ensuing struggle, the cop gets exactly what's coming to him.  With every other option seeming worse, they ride off into the night.  This is where those opening credits finally find their way into the movie, wherein the terror of their flight is expressed more-or-less solely through negative space, bordering on anti-cinema, only a screeching yellow font on black nothingness (it's the only place where the movie makes anything of the names "Queen" or "Slim") and their panicked voices as they come up with the only strategy that makes any kind of sense at all.  From there, they head out across America, eventually coming up with a plan (a bad plan with several holes in it, though I don't know what a "good" plan would look like here) to go south and pull an Assata Shakur, fleeing to Cuba and hopefully to asylum.  In the meantime, their exploit becomes a cultural sensation, and they get a sense of what they've come to mean to their people as well as to each other.

One thing that I imagine is easy to overlook, because it makes its interest in making Big Statements about Big Issues impossible to ignore, is that Queen & Slim is also a genuine romance with about the brassest-tacks high concept available, focusing upon a pair of star-crossed lovers who have pretty much outright disdain for each other at first, but, in the situation they've been put in, have to quickly come to terms with each other also being (effectively) the last man and woman on Earth.  (Another thing that I think is subtle, but important, is how being fugitives obliges them to ditch their cellphones: the multi-decade fantasia of style that winds up redefining their appearances in the mold that Matsoukas has decided makes the most memorable outlaws is the obvious part, but there are numerous touches and elisions throughout that quietly push "2019" to the margins in order to ground the story in something more enduring, even if the narrative depends crucially on Internet virality and Black Lives Mattering being forces at work in the world.)

Anyway, that they are left with no one but each other to depend on is tragic and awful, but it is also larger than life.  In its smaller gestures, it's profoundly bittersweet.  And it's more in Turner-Smith and Kaluuya's evolving chemistry than in any other aspect of the film that Queen & Slim makes its play for instilling in its viewer the feeling of something permanent.  The story of how they fall in love consumes the littler, human half of the film's equation; and it's also how the bigger, mythic half earns any of its power when it could've been merely crass.  There's an amazing piece of cross-cutting toward the end (not the very end, which, you know, is quite literally a synthesis of Bonnie & Clyde and Thelma & Louise, but a very good one).  It's a sequence that I believe is easy to misread, or just refuse to read at all, because it goes for absolute broke, juxtaposing sex and violence in what I suppose might look like a terrifically misjudged, tasteless way.  I won't pretend I wasn't jarred, but I think we were supposed to be jarred by it: Queen & Slim's worth being patient with, and Lena Waithe's screenplay explains how it intends to be read a little later.  And there it is: in a tiny, quiet scene that begins with "tell me a story," an unbearably powerful fable about generations persevering through horror is told, without Slim ever realizing that that is what he's doing.  It is, in combination with that earlier cross-cut slap across the face, a work of amazing metaphoric filmmaking—maybe even a little obvious in retrospect, but great metaphors always seem that way afterwards, don't they?

It's also worth being patient with Queen & Slim because while it begins incredibly and ends incredibly, it also kind of wallows in its middle, and Waithe's screenplay (apparently based on an idea by James Frey, and why not? he's made a great career of relating experiences that didn't happen to him) is not uniformly sterling.  Not bad, but nowhere close to perfect.  The only scene that I personally found potentially outright film-breaking was when Slim hands his stolen Glock to the clerk he's robbing for needed gasoline, because the clerk asked him to.  It's a piece of surreal quasi-comedy that functions admirably as surreal quasi-comedy, but is a little too dumb to belong here, in a world that's been rendered dreamy, but not, like, goofy.  But there are chronic problems with the middle too, and the very biggest is the lawyer's uncle, and her uncle's polyamorous quartet.  I'm kidding.  He's a central casting pimp (Bokeem Woodbine) with several sexual slaves and a penchant for violence against women, backhands and all.  Somehow, Uncle Pimp's the third most prominent character in the film—for a putative travelogue, the "traveling" part only occupies Queen & Slim's first and last thirds—and the character's the most endemically destabilizing element of the whole construction.  I suppose I could theorize about whatever Waithe and Matsoukas thought they were doing with him, but it would be empty, and I'll leave it at this: it doesn't play, it's awfully distracting, and I'm pretty sure the entire reason he was invented at all was in order for our two squares to get into costume for the photo that's the film's self-conscious iconic centerpiece.  (He's also the one who makes the "black Bonnie and Clyde" joke, even though "black Thelma and Louise" would still be funnier.  But Queen & Slim is, after all, not just the black but the extremely heterosexual version of Thelma & Louise.)

If that makes it sound like there's a lot of Queen & Slim that doesn't work, it's really just those two things.  Besides, even in the midst of it "not working," Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are working, and Tat Radcliffe's haunted nighttime cinematography and halcyonic daytimes are working, and Pete Beaudreau's editing is exemplary at keeping the heroes locked and isolated in their own frames until their relationship blossoms, which means that it's working, too, as is Devonté Hynes' excellent score, even if just about every other piece of music in the film isn't to my tastes (and when it's Slim's music, I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be to anyone's).  The rest of Waithe's screenplay is absolutely still working—Queen and Slim themselves are sharply written characters who grow hazier in terrifically interesting ways, the more they recede into history and into each other—and, all along, Matsoukas' command of tone is working.  And that in particular is not something to be taken for granted, given that Queen & Slim routinely swerves from holocaustal sadness to a very dry but very funny brand of humor.  Then again, the scenario itself provides the most reasonable possible excuse for the sometimes-forced nature of the whimsies that Waithe and Matsoukas bring in, like an hour of risky public dancing, or a horsey ride, or a very irresponsible use of an automobile.  And that ties back into the fact that you know how this story's going to end before you even start it—because Queen and Slim are as aware of that as you are, even if everyone involved wishes there were another ending for their tale.

Score: 8/10

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