Queen & Slim feels important but can't get over itself

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      Starring Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. Rated 14A

      The timeliness and powerful intentions of Queen & Slim are inarguable, as are the talents on display. And the slickly shot movie has the kind of audaciousness people are yearning for right now.

      Two happening Brits, Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya and Jett’s Jodie Turner-Smith, go American again to play the title characters, known only by their nicknames. Queen’s a lawyer and he’s a—well, we know he’s a Christian and a non-drinker, but not much else. Their first date, a less-than-tender Tinder affair, is already going wrong when he gives her a ride home and gets waylaid by an obviously sadistic white cop (country rocker Sturgill Simpson, no less). It’s no spoiler to say that this beginning ends badly, and the duo goes on the run.

      Strangely enough, this bang-boom start only lowers the stakes for the remaining two hours of an interstate car journey that takes them from Ohio to the Deep South. The filmmakers say they wanted to follow the Underground Railroad in reverse, while observing a budding romance against the backdrop of chain gangs, rigid social rules, and steamy swamps—moral and otherwise.

      First-time feature-writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas worked together on “Thanksgiving,” the most arresting episode of the great Netflix series Master of None. Matsoukas has since helmed multiple installments of HBO’s Insecure, as well as key music videos for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and other top artists. There are some terrific set pieces here, along with smart nods to Langston Hughes and other touchstones of African-American history, including a visit to an antique-style roadhouse, with Little Freddie King performing old-school blues.

      Elsewhere, everyone from Lauryn Hill to Earth, Wind & Fire provide musical momentum. But the movie remains curiously static, with little urgency to remind us of the peril our fugitives are facing. Queen and Slim, now nationally recognized outlaws, meet plenty of interesting characters along the way, and the filmmakers are careful to subvert expectations about the “types” they encounter.

      For all that, though, the leads grow more remote—icons, not intimates, you could say. Kaluuya’s mannerisms (the crouch and the glare) grow thin, and there are rookie filmmaking missteps, too, like the clichéd intercutting between the new twosome’s first sexual experience and a violent social protest miles away. The rest of the story is seen through their eyes, so it’s weird to break away to a (poorly filmed) event they don’t even know about. But such is the burden of iconography; symbols must carry far more weight than people do.

      And sometimes they can’t quite leave the page.