PLOT A black man and woman on a first date become fugitives after one kills a white cop.
CAST Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine
RATED R (sexuality, language, violence)
BOTTOM LINE Urgent messages about race and justice are diluted by a contrived storyline.
America is split in two in "Queen & Slim," Melina Matsoukas' drama about a black man and woman whose awkward first date becomes a nightmare when one kills a white policeman in self-defense. The act is justifiable, but the black characters know that justice does not exist for them. As they outrun the law, they become both headline news and underground folk heroes — "The black Bonnie and Clyde," as one man calls them.
"Queen & Slim" feels like a potentially important and possibly incendiary film, driven by a pair of intriguing stars, relative newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen and Daniel Kaluuya as Slim. (Neither nickname is ever used in the film.) An overall lack of realism and a tendency toward romantic thinking, however, muddle its message. The movie burns with outrage, but its inability to express itself clearly can be maddening.
We're on unsteady ground from the beginning, when our heroes meet at a diner somewhere in Ohio. Slim is an affable type, Queen icy to the point of toxic, and there's no chemistry at all. A routine traffic stop by an aggressive white cop (country singer Sturgill Simpson) leads to a fight over his gun, and Slim kills him. It's Queen — a lawyer, interestingly — who argues they should run.
What follows is an episodic journey through an underground black America, the mirror image of the white one, in which Queen & Slim have already been found innocent. From the back streets of New Orleans, where Slim meets Queen's shady uncle Earl (an excellent Bokeem Woodbine), to the nightclubs of Georgia, where a bartender pours free drinks, the two outlaws find friendly faces. "It's an honor to meet y'all," says a starry-eyed kid named Junior (Jai Di'Allo Winston). A helpful white couple, the Shepherds (Chloë Sevigny and Flea, an odd but intriguing pairing), come off as something like Underground Railroad conductors who promise safe passage.
This is a fascinating schism, but "Queen & Slim" falters in its details. Our heroes rarely behave logically; they're always doing poetically cinematic things like stopping to ride horses or conspicuously sticking their torsos out of moving cars to enjoy the wind. The screenplay, by Lena Waithe and James Frey, author of the so-called memoir "A Million Little Pieces" that turned out to be full of major fabrications, consistently trades realism for contrivances.