Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen & Slim (Photo: Universal)

QUEEN & SLIM
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Melina Matsoukas
STARS Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith

When Aliens was first released back in 1986, many reviewers and pundits took one look at Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and tagged her “a female Rambo.” It was not only an insulting designation but also an incorrect one, as the two characters had very little in common other than their ability to handle large weaponry.

A similar misinterpretation is currently dogging Queen & Slim, a drama which lazy thinkers are dubbing “a black Bonnie and Clyde.” Ridiculous. Bonnie and Clyde were hardcore criminals — exactly the opposite of the protagonists of this sober and somber new drama. If anything, Queen & Slim has much more in common with Thelma & Louise, another film about two decent people being forced to go on the run due to an unchecked societal ill.

In Thelma & Louise, it was an attempted rape that set the heroines’ vehicular odyssey in motion; here, it’s unbridled racism. Ernest “Slim” Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) and Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) have just wrapped up their disastrous first date, a restaurant meet-up that, despite the insistence of the Tender app, revealed that the retail employee (him) and the rising lawyer (her) have very little in common.

As Ernest is driving Angela home, they’re pulled over by a cop (country music star Sturgill Simpson) for a busted taillight. Of course, once the police officer sees that the car’s occupants are black, he immediately starts treating them poorly, asking questions and demanding actions that never would have entered his mind had they been white. While Ernest tries to comply, Angela’s attorney mind kicks into gear — the arguments become more heated, the cop turns violent, and Ernest is forced to fatally shoot him in self-defense.

And just like that, Angela and Ernest are forced to take it on the lam, trying to remain under the radar while seeking help from those who would offer it. Angela’s Uncle Earl (an amusing turn from Bokeem Woodbine) is the first to (reluctantly) offer assistance, but it’s soon revealed that, not surprisingly, there are many in the black community who support the pair, viewing them as symbols for all those who are tired of white cops killing innocent African-Americans. Even one white guy, Uncle Earl’s former army buddy (Flea), is more than willing to help them out, although his wife (Chloë Sevigny) doesn’t exactly share his sympathies.

Just as Thelma & Louise was firmly rooted in Americana, so too is Queen & Slim, offering peeks at various facets of society as the two fugitives travel across different state lines in an attempt to free themselves from this nightmare. Director Melina Matsoukas (a music video veteran making her feature-film debut) and writers Lena Waithe and James Frey have nothing but sympathy for their two leads, and while Angela and Ernest have little chemistry, that’s actually part of the point of two dissimilar types being tossed together by circumstances and forced to find common ground.

Some of the film’s subplots and supporting characterizations feel underdeveloped, and the film never quite burns with the clear-eyed intensity of last year’s excellent, 10 Best entry The Hate U Give. But as a conversation starter among discerning types, as a palate cleanser from the injustices of the real world, and simply as a worthwhile motion picture, Queen & Slim takes a familiar road and invests it with newfound fury.

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