It’s messy, random, funny and poignant, violent and surreal, politically-charged and romantic.
“Queen & Slim” is an African American art film channeling a 1970s blaxploitation, on-the-lam-from-the-law road picture vibe. As its riveting, rambling, geographically-inept two hours roll by, lurid visions of the blaxploitation cinema of that era bubble through an indie spin on “Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry,” “Sugarland Express” and “Vanishing Point.”
Does Tarantino know director Melina Matsoukas (TV’s “Insecure” and “Master of None”)? It’ll be love at first viewing once he takes a gander at this.
The odyssey begins with a date, enabled by Tinder, consummated at a suburban Ohio diner. There are no names, just banter. He (Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out”) is a noisy, uncouth eater. She (Jodie Turner-Smith of TV’s “The Last Ship”) is regal, long hair expensively braided, put together — a lawyer. She’s out of his league but she’s trying not to let it bother her.
“I know good grammar!”
She picked him because “You had this sad look on your face. I felt sorry for you.”
He takes that about as well as you could hope, talks about his family lovingly, sports a crucifix, prays over his meal as we learn that A) she’s a lawyer, B) she’s not close to her family and C) she’s an atheist.
So that ride home in his Accord, with his “TrustGod” vanity plates doesn’t hold a lot of promise. But when she takes his phone to stop him texting and driving, and starts poking through his business on it, he reaches over to get it back. That little swerve on an empty road in a black part of town, with no traffic, is their undoing.
And telling the testy cop who pulls them over “My bad” isn’t going to cut it. “Get out of the car” is next. “May I ask why, officer?” isn’t going to cool him down, either. “No, you may not.”
Having a lawyer in the car is no help. The “officer’s prerogative” means impertinent, accusatory questions, a rummage through the trunk. Nothing He says can descalate the situation. Everything She says does just the opposite, and that’s how the trigger-happy cop pulls the trigger, there’s a life-or-death wrestle over the gun, she’s grazed on the leg, the cop winds up dead.
The lawyer is the one who demands that they leave the scene. “We are going to keep running until we come up with a better plan!”
He may protest, want to call his family, want to get her to a hospital. Overruled. No phones (out the window). No hospital. Just flee.
Matsoukas and her “Master of None” screenwriter/collaborator Lena Waithe put our anti-heroes on the road, with tension at every fill-up, suspense in every encounter, and fear that the policeman’s cruiser had a camera that will ID them, but not clearly demonstrate how out-of-line the dead cop was.
They’re going to be infamous in an Internet instant.
And yet somehow a fraught transaction with a convenience store clerk — they left their wallets in the car they abandoned, but took the dead cop’s gun — dissolves into laughs.
“Izzat a Glock,” impressed white boy clerk wants to know? Others treat them as folk heroes — “Cop killas, cop killas!”
And the destination she has decided on, New Orleans, taking refuge with her pimp Uncle Earl, lets veteran character actor Bokeem Woodbine (“Dead Presidents” to “Overlord”) hilariously take over the movie. No “get away” for “the black Bonnie and Clyde” would be complete without a wholly pimped turquoise 1972 Pontiac Catalina dressed in appropriate pimpwear.
Matsoukas and Waithe gift their stars with little reveries, romantic conversations that this mismatched pair share in the shock of their flight. Confessions and longings are handled in voice-over rather than straight filmed dialogue, a poetic touch that works.
Her “ideal” man? “I want him to show me scars I never knew I had.”
Amid the grace notes, there’s bickering — over control, big decisions about their route, and music — “Skinny Luther (Vandross) or Fat Luther?”
Kaluuya makes a marvelously sleepy-eyed reactor, in over his head from the start. “You look guilty? “I AM guilty.” Turner-Smith announces her arrival as a star, fiery and sexy, worldwise but vulnerable.
“Queen & Slim” hits familiar waypoints (a juke joint) along it’s alternately grim-or-merry way, making comments about police racism and militarization, Black Lives Matter reviving African American activism, and folk hero myths born of violence.
The departure stings and the destination burns. But as with any trip that embeds itself in memory, it’s the journey and those you take it with that “Queen & Slim” leaves you with.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use.
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Benito Martinez, Chloe Sevigny, Flea and Bokeem Woodbine
Credits: Directed by Melina Matsoukas, script by Lena Waithe. An eOne/Universal release.
Running time: 2:12