It could almost be said that the protagonists of Queen & Slim “meet cute.” Hooked up via Tinder, the prickly defense lawyer (Jodie Turner-Smith) and the easygoing Costco employee (Daniel Kaluuya) quickly determine that they have nothing in common. No second date is contemplated, but then the non-couple is pulled over by a bullying white policeman, an encounter that ends with the woman slightly wounded and the cop dead. The two may lack chemistry, but now they’re inseparable.
The fugitives become, as one character greets them, “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” Yet this is a hot-pursuit flick that’s not in much of a hurry. Running more than two hours, the feature debut of Beyoncé video-director Melina Matsoukas is more a mood piece than a thriller.
The stylish if implausible movie meanders from Cleveland to New Orleans to Florida, spending much of its time getting to know the people we’ll refer to as Queen & Slim — although they’re never called that on screen. She’s political and an atheist, with a traumatic family backstory that will be disbursed in bits and pieces. He is close to his dad, and a teetotaler and churchgoer. The license plate on the car Slim must abandon reads “TRUSTGOD.”
God’s not much help in situations like this, so the outlaws rely on the unrighteous. These rogues include Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine), a pimp who knows someone who knows someone who maybe can get the duo to Cuba. In a half-effective bid to become less conspicuous, Queen cuts off her long braids and squeezes into a hooker’s tight leopard-print dress. It flaunts both her figure and the bandage on her leg.
Such costuming is just one indication that Matsoukas is more interested in flashy visuals than plausible narrative. Lena Waithe’s script (from a story by make-believe-memoirist James Frey) is a string of incidents, many of them poetic. To these, Matsoukas adds a series of flamboyant poses. (The most tasteless flourish is a sequence that cross-cuts between simultaneous outbreaks of lust and hate.)
During the many slow patches in their frantic escape, the runaways begin to eye each across the class divide. Perhaps inspired by a soundtrack stuffed with sexy slow jams, Queen and Slim find that their exasperation with each other is turning to attraction. Soon they’re young and they’re in love — as a movie tagline once cooed of the white Bonnie and Clyde.
The developing romance isn’t especially credible, but at least Turner-Smith and Kaluuya don’t oversell it. Their performances are engaging and subtle, and Matsoukas helps them out by putting much of the most florid dialogue into voiceover rather than their mouths.
Toward the end of their trip, Queen and Slim take shelter with a white couple (Chloe Sevigny and Flea) whose background is unexplained but whose hideaway-outfitted house suggests a modern-day underground railroad for radicals on the run.
Another station is an auto repair shop where Queen and Slim’s presence inspires a teenage boy to join a street protest that turns violent. That’s one of two bloody scenes designed to shock and awe sympathetic audiences. The other is a climactic showdown that makes little sense as a culmination of the narrative, but succeeds by the logic of grand opera — and music videos.
Queen & Slim is more interested in myth-making than storytelling, and viewers who don’t care that much about the latter just might buy into the former.