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Review: Melina Matsoukas makes bold feature directing debut with ‘Queen & Slim’

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in  “Queen & Slim.”
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in “Queen & Slim.”
(Universal Pictures)

The descriptor “visionary” is thrown around a lot these days for film directors, and it’s often a reach. But for filmmaker Melina Matsoukas, the veteran music video director behind many of Rihanna and Lady Gaga’s most memorable clips as well as Beyoncé's “Formation” and “Lemonade,” “visionary” seems the only word to describe her searing directorial debut, the unique and unabashed “Queen & Slim.” It’s a film that comes roaring out of the gate, marking Matsoukas as a filmmaker with audacity and originality.

“Queen & Slim” is the story of a first date that goes from bad, to horrific, to something akin to fantasy and tragic transcendence. We meet our young couple (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith), who remain nameless until the end of the film, during an awkward Tinder dinner in snowy Ohio. They’re an ill-matched pair. She’s an uptight career woman, a public defender with a caseload that weighs heavy; he’s a warm and friendly family-oriented guy. It appears the night will end in mild disappointment until an all-too commonplace event alters the course of their lives forever: They’re pulled over by an aggressive white cop (Sturgill Simpson). In the ensuing escalation, the cop is killed; the couple goes on the run.

“Queen & Slim” is a modern-day “Bonnie and Clyde” tale rooted in the urgent sociopolitical issues of the day: police brutality, systemic racism, a palpable sense of anger at the injustice that promises to bubble over. Along with screenwriter Lena Waithe (James Frey has a story credit), Matsoukas imagines a heightened version of our world, where outlaw lovers find safety and solidarity along their journey in unexpected places as they become beloved folk heroes for the African American community, thanks to protests and viral videos.

They’re ushered on their journey by a mix of magic, serendipity and unspoken collective action, whisked toward parts south via an underground railroad of sorts, made up of friendly bartenders in blues bars, kindly sex workers, impressionable kids, reluctant white allies and even some cops. The journey isn’t entirely realistic, but it remains plausible.

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Working with cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, Matsoukas weaves a visual language that feels wholly new for the big screen, bringing in many of her music video hallmarks. Costume and production design are rendered with a kind of iconicism and beauty. Radcliffe’s use of natural and practical lights is stunning, with neon hues and fading sunlight glowing on glistening skin. Matsoukas visually charts a path from the gray Midwest to the vibrant Southeast, through green fields to pink sunsets. Her aesthetic is at once highly stylized yet spontaneous, serving the unreal reality of the tale.

‘Queen and Slim’ is a road movie, yes, but it’s also a protest film over police brutality against black people, says director Melina Matsoukas.

Kaluuya is predictably fantastic, unsuspecting and earnestly sweet. But it’s Turner-Smith who stuns in a breakout performance, announcing the arrival of a major talent and screen presence. They change each other, imperceptibly and then all at once. He softens her, she hardens him, but they’re bonded for life in the impossible struggle. Whipsawing between hope and devastation, “Queen & Slim” speaks to this specific cultural moment. It’s not with a grounded realism, but with an almost operatic sense of melodrama, in the writing, performances and with Matsouka’s daring cinematic style, where beauty and politics are inextricably intertwined. It’s an adrenaline shot right to the heart, and a bold declaration of a bright new auteur.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Queen & Slim'
Rated: R, for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 27 in general release


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