Queen & Slim (2019): A New Love Story about Counter-Culture

In an age where remakes of classic films is the hottest trend in cinema, Melina Matsoukas reinvents the sociopolitical urgency of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) into a evocation of the 21st century racial divide and contemporary activism. It aspires to the aesthetic of modern cinema through its slick, sexy and colourful construction (reflecting Matsoukas’ earlier work on Beyoncé’s music videos), yet unfortunately its lack of subtlety and the stiff, unremarkable screenplay is what lets it down. Taking an autistic perspective into account, you’d think a more obvious script with literal dialogue would be helpful. In actual fact, this takes away a cinematic element that helps aid the sensory processing, so I felt it lacked quite a lot of substance. The story and symbolism display a strong message of pride and inspiration for the disenfranchised, a call to arms which makes a positive diversion from the destructive, pessimistic tone of Joker (2019), but is sadly missing the fluidity and memorability that it needed to be a truly great film.

For me, the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde is incredibly significant, as one of the first of many mainstream Hollywood films that used contemporary issues as an urgent and angry undercurrent running defiantly throughout. It’s progressiveness as a mid 20th century studio film inspires me many years later, providing a possibility for radical change in cinema and a voice for those trying to deconstruct institutional homogenous conservative values that have polluted the film industry since the early 20th Century. Whilst I don’t think the intention behind Queen & Slim was to “change cinema”, I feel like its statement is one that is no longer original, and therefore less dynamic and engaging for an audience, especially taking into account a neurodiverse perspective which might see it as repetitive. Having said that, I really enjoyed specific details in the story that set it apart from the 1967 film. Whilst Bonnie and Clyde’s treacherous road trip was triggered by a series of murders and robberies to aid the counter-cultural movement against the depression-era class-divide, Matsoukas’ protagonists are not the instigators. Instead, the unnamed characters who we assume to be “Queen” and “Slim” are forced into a tragic incident that puts a hefty bounty on their heads, echoing the very real threat that racial discrimination and police brutality pose towards black people, regardless of their character or significance. Throughout the course of the film, Queen and Slim transform into idealised manifestations of black culture, the poster man and woman for equality activists and the inspirations to the kids  looking for hope, a stark contrast to their former, unremarkable selves. Whilst the effort to make both characters as mundane and insignificant as possible (Slim being a law-abiding everyman and Queen being a cold defence attorney) is beneficial to this plot development, it unfortunately prevents us from connecting and sympathising with them during the film’s crucial exposition, a missed connection that lingers throughout the film. Neither character fully embraces their new publicised identity, emblematised through the lush velvet sports tracksuit and the skimpy tiger print mini dress, however I feel that is a nice touch of humanity added to figures who could easily get lost in legend. A common practice with autism is “masking” or putting on a new face to convey a certain image, so masking in films is something we can really identify with and understand. While their appearance as notorious crime duo “Queen and Slim” is consistent, their individual identities are still somewhat tangible, despite the emotionally limited dialogue, which is quite comforting to see.

There are occasional moments of frivolity between the two protagonists throughout the film, potential elements of impulsiveness and relatability that become confusing and disposable in the grand scheme of the film. This is down to the lack of believable chemistry between the two, which is a shame because the film is essentially constructed around both of them and their relationship with each other. A truly electric bond between them is vitally needed in order for the film to be as engaging, intriguing and dynamic as it wanted to be, and unfortunately the screenplay and performances fell short.

On a positive note, I thought that the montages used throughout the film were really exceptional. The intercutting of Queen and Slim making love with a chaotic street protest effectively intertwines the two themes of romance and sociopolitical urgency, making the two seemingly and surprisingly reliant on each other. The juxtaposition of the idolised heroes with the violent consequences they inadvertently cause opens up a more complex debate on where and when activism loses its effectiveness, and becomes an irrepressible weapon of destruction. This is one of the few moments in Queen & Slim where I felt actively engaged in an original and turbulent debate, one that I took home with me to think about after the film. Moments like these are what I consider to be truly great cinema, but unfortunately there was just too little of it in this film for me.

Queen & Slim delivers a culturally accurate reimagining of the legendary story of Bonnie & Clyde, with a bold message and a strong, modern aesthetic. Yet the fact that its relationship to the original story is blatantly stated by the character in the film as the “black Bonnie & Clyde” perhaps demonstrates a lousiness in the script, with a tendency to be literal over cinematically expressive. It’s a fun, enjoyable film, but unfortunately not at all memorable.

Score: 5/10