Opening Wednesday, Nov. 27

Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim is at its best when it goes all in on the fantasy aspects of its ‘70s exploitation-style premise: A bad Tinder date at a cheap Cleveland diner turns into a nationwide manhunt after Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) kill a police officer (Sturgill Simpson) in self-defense at a traffic stop. 

But the veteran music-video director’s feature-length debut is less compelling when the clunky script by Lena Waithe (after a story by James Frey, of all people) pulls the film, as if against its will, toward a by-the-numbers tragic arc.

A road movie at heart, the film is worth seeing simply for how Matsoukas portrays the locations, from the desolate Midwest to a roadhouse nightclub in Georgia and a lush, ramshackle brothel in New Orleans. From radiant daylight scenes to neon nights, disparate vignettes are brought together by Turner-Smith and Kaluuya’s opposites-attract chemistry as the haughty, standoffish Queen and the friendly, easygoing Slim.

The most daring aspect of the movie is how the world opens up for the pair after they kill a cop, rather than closing down. Not only does the dash-cam footage of the killing go viral, turning them into folk heroes, but the threat of death or prison impels them to live without fear. There’s a quasi-childlike innocence in how they take a break from driving to ride horses or spend a whole evening dancing that evokes French New Wave classics like Breathless

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Combined with a soundtrack that ranges across the whole history of Black pop music, the film’s best scenes show Queen and Slim remaking the country in their own image, according to their own desires. But the narrative improbability doesn’t quite work when the story takes a tragic turn. 

A series of increasingly bizarre decisions and deus ex machinas undercut the script’s nuance and moral ambiguity. In the worst example, a passionate love scene is crosscut with the copycat shooting of an African-American cop at a Ferguson-style protest, making unintentional comedy out of both. There’s also something about the audiovisual slickness of Matsoukas’s direction that neutralizes even the most violent moments. 

In interviews, Matsoukas has resisted the film’s labeling as “the Black Bonnie and Clyde,” denying that her characters are criminals. Instead, she argues, they are just people trying to stay alive. 

Queen & Slim could have made this case more compellingly had it avoided the more moralistic clichés of the crime melodrama. It will be interesting to see what Matsoukas can do with a script that makes better use of her talents.