Queen & Slim, the new Blaxploitation movie (more on that later), is primarily an attempt at myth-making. The advertising poster showing an unnamed black male-and-female duo striking a casually defiant pose sums up the film itself — in which the two main characters are never named. It’s an indication that in Millennial narratives, memes and iconography play a greater role than storytelling.
The story in Queen & Slim converts a lovers-on-the-lam format — Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith meet on a Tinder blind date — to an archetypal nightmare. The blacks are pulled over by a white policeman and, during the subsequent altercation, the couple wind up as cop-killers and instant folk heroes.
Screenwriters Lena Waithe (an intersectional media celebrity) and notorious novelist James Frey perpetuate the idea that black Americans are victimized by the police — a political notion that gained traction just as Obama was leaving office and the nation’s ethnic populace felt bereft of any real social advantage. Queen & Slim is part of the grievance industry that grew from that disappointment. The filmmakers presume that audiences automatically distrust police; race-based social paranoia is used to sell martyr chic.
Queen & Slim perverts the road-movie genre that is usually about social exploration, not bias confirmation. Every classic ’70s road movie offered a picaresque survey of cultural differences that illustrated the multiplicity of American life. (Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Badlands, The Sugarland Express, and Thieves Like Us reflected skeptical concerns of their time.) But Queen & Slim poorly reiterates the post–Ferguson, Mo., canards from Michael Brown’s fictitious “hands-up don’t shoot” to the Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice mythologies.
Instead of urging viewers to question media accounts and move toward self-reflection, Queen & Slim uses marketing iconography to make up for what lead actors Kaluuya and Turner-Smith lack in charisma. Their partnership recalls Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s brief stint as hip-hop “Bonnie & Clyde,” a ride-or-die criminal fantasy. But this Queen and Slim are just stick figures.
Neither of these unnamed characters is more than a meme; their backgrounds are sketchy. Whether she declares, “It should be a sin to call a black woman crazy” or he hums along to gospel music on the car radio and says, “I don’t believe in luck, I believe things are destined,” they are essentially news-media stereotypes. The only character development occurs when Turner-Smith shaves her stereotypical dreadlocks for an androgynous henna crew-cut and wears a form-fitting tiger-striped halter and snakeskin boots, and Kaluuya dons a ’90s jogging suit. The mix of glam and mundane attire trivializes the post–Hurricane Katrina setting in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood — also recently seen in Black and Blue. These clichés are the stock-in-trade of debut director Melina Matsoukas, who hit the motherload of faux politics in Beyoncé’s Formation music video (its fashion-magazine version of Black Panther iconography is no different from the Ferguson-esque scenes here).
The interlude in which the couple visits the female’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a war veteran turned pimp (“Iraq f***ed him up”), comes closest to believability — thanks primarily to Woodbine’s amusing portrayal of a frustrated tough guy. His pogo-stick tantrum is spot-on, as is his final impudent gesture in fur-collared finery. Woodbine’s authentic American-male hoodrat could be an Altman character (highest praise).
Since the advent-then-retreat of Obama, the media have formulated devious ways that teach blacks what to think and how to imagine themselves. That’s the real message of Queen & Slim’s criminal-victim meme. The unconvincing moment when these hostile partners fornicate is intercut with a pointless digression — a black youth infatuated with criminality (he takes the outlaw couple’s photo because “pictures are proof of your existence”) joins an anti-police protest where he kills a helpful black cop. Instead of investigating the fecklessness behind black police killings, the filmmakers exploit the blame narrative — a racial version of Thelma & Louise’s faux feminism. It may flatter Black Lives Matter dupes, but even they should be disappointed by such triteness.
Queen & Slim’s intersectional race-and-gender political points are not audacious and transgressive, like those in Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992), a wild, sexy road farce about a pair of AIDS-victim serial killers. Araki titillated his subculture audience while questioning its self-righteous presumptions. Most strikingly, Araki dared to challenge political correctness; Queen & Slim is the product of neo-Blaxploitation, minus genuine political observation as formerly seen in such radical entertainments as Sweet Sweetback, Blacula, Cool Breeze, and Thomasine & Bushrod. Queen & Slim exploits the naïveté of Black Lives Matter filmgoers who don’t know those cultural precedents.