Queen & Slim is a début feature film for Melina Matsoukas working with the prolific writer Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win a ‘comedy writer’ Emmy for her work on the series Master of None (2015). Waithe was also a producer on Dear White People (US 2014). Matsoukas has had a long career as a music video director topped by her contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s not surprising then that two such talented women should enable Jodie Turner-Smith to create the character ‘Queen’. It’s a terrific performance and with Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Slim’ they make a memorable couple.
The film came to the UK with some glowing reviews after its US release in November 2019, but there was little UK promotion – at least from my perspective – and I didn’t really know what to expect. But there were two reasons I wanted to see it. First, I knew that it begins with an altercation between a white police officer and the black couple after he stops their car with the result that they are forced to go ‘on the run’ with every police force looking for them. This links directly to the earlier The Hate U Give (US 2018) which I have worked on as a possible study text. There is also a later incident the film that directly links the two films as well. Second, I read somewhere that the narrative in some way references the idea of the ‘Underground Railroad’ by which slaves were able to escape from plantations and eventually to get to Canada in the pre-Civil War period. This was recently the central part of the story of Harriet Tubman in Harriet (US 2019).
Queen & Slim begins in Cleveland, Ohio when two people meet on a Tinder date. It isn’t going terribly well (neither character has a name as yet) and they have only known each other for a short time when their car is pulled over. What follows is perhaps best presented as a mash-up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with It Happened One Night (1934). If that sounds unlikely note that both these classic films are road movies. In one a bunch of ‘outlaws’ rob banks during the Great Depression, become media celebrities and are often admired by people whose savings and land have been ‘grabbed’ by those same banks. In the other, a man and a woman meet on a bus travelling to New York and somehow fall in love despite their differences.
In Queen & Slim, the couple make their way South and have a series of adventures on their way to Florida from where they hope to get to Cuba. They become ‘Queen’ and ‘Slim’ when they attempt to change their appearance at Queen’s Uncle Earl’s house. It’s at this moment perhaps that the film’s approach becomes clear (or rather, is confirmed). This isn’t strictly a ‘Hollywood realism’ film. There are moments when the characters do unexpected or plain stupid things which place them in more danger. Just one example – when they change clothes, Queen chooses a micro-dress which is so short it reveals the bandage on her thigh. Slim selects an outfit I don’t know how to describe but which appears to deliberately ‘type’ him. A little later they agree to be photographed and the resultant image is used on the film’s poster. Nick Lacey commented to me that the image is both striking but also possibly plays on the typing of both African-American men and women.
The Bonnie and Clyde tag is applied to the couple by one of the characters and it soon becomes clear that wherever they go in the South, African-Americans (and some white people) know who they are but still help them avoid the police. The Underground Railway reference is also clear when the couple are hidden in a clever way during a police search. These attitudes towards the ‘fugitives’ are also linked to various discourses about how working-class Americans (again mostly but not solely African-Americans) have been treated by government policies and institutional racism.
This is a long film (132 mins) and many commentators have argued that it is too long for the material. I don’t agree, I was engaged throughout and I felt I grew to know the characters. The film was shot, on film, by the British DoP Tat Radcliffe who shares a background with the director in music videos, but who has also worked on action features such as ’71 (UK 2014). Almost the whole film was shot on location in and around Cleveland and New Orleans. The film looks good in a ‘Scope frame and Radcliffe tells us (in this Kodak piece) that in the first part of the film, the camera is often static or ‘locked’ but towards the end there is much more Steadicam work. Radcliffe praises the director’s eye for detail and I was impressed by the use of landscapes and the detail of neighbourhood scenes. Too often Hollywood films seem to show the same nondescript city environments but this felt different (because of the New Orleans location, I couldn’t help thinking about Easy Rider (1969), a film with several similar elements).
One of the most enjoyable scenes in the film for me is a quick visit to a roadside bar with a live blues band. The band are fantastic and at this stage we are still surprised that everyone knows who this couple are – and Queen and Slim are still learning about each other. The music throughout the film is interesting, but I’m not really competent to comment on much of it. IMDB seems to have failed to find the music credits but lists of the songs and the artistes are available. I still can’t find who plays the live music in the bar. Does anybody know?
I’ve seen a negative comment about the fact that once again the leads in an African-American film are Brits. Jodie Turner-Smith was born in Peterborough but has lived in the US for some time and appeared in US film and TV productions. Daniel Kaluuya must be getting fed-up with this. Cynthia Erivo was also caught up with this kind of comment about her role in Harriet. I’m not sure whether her Oscar nomination improved matters. I don’t really understand this. Brits have always been part of Hollywood casting. Perhaps it is part of a commentary about roles for black actors in both the UK and US. There are far more opportunities in the US so it isn’t surprising Brits are often keen to go over.
Queen and Slim is an excellent début and definitely a film worth looking up.
The trailer below reveals quite a few aspects of the plot and a couple of the best gags.
School’s Out is an odd mix of elements, not helped by being saddled with a poor English language title. All that title means to me is an Alice Cooper song and the idea of an American school breaking up for summer and for some students ‘forever’. The French title is far more intriguing. I’m not a French speaker but it suggests to me the idea of ‘a specific time to leave’. The first scene in the film, when a teacher suddenly decides to leap from the second floor window of his school classroom, makes for a suspenseful start. What does his ‘leaving’ mean?
At some point I’m going to have to question how My French Film Festival selects the films it offers. This particular film was first shown at Venice in 2018 and it stars Laurent Lafitte, who was also in the first film I saw in the festival, Savage. I understand that Lafitte is a kind of celebrity actor in France, appearing on stage as a member of la Comédie Française as well as frequently in a wide range of French films. I realise that I have seen him before in several films, but not in leading roles so much. Added to Lafitte’s presence, this is an adaptation of a 2002 novel by Christophe Dufossé and it is directed by another novelist making his second feature film, Sébastien Marnier. The novel was published in English (with the same re-titling) and the book was described as a ‘thriller’. Dufossé suggests that Stephen King was an influence and reviews of the novel suggest a mixing of a teen/high school story and a thriller element. This also affects the film, but films can make generic references simply by reminding us of other films.
The film’s narrative opens much like the excellent French-Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011), but with some significant differences – we see the moment of the jump, it is secondary school not a primary school and the substitute teacher arrives quickly and without much of an interview. Although what follows is a quite different story, there a still a few elements that stay the same – a teacher new to the school faced with a class being counselled for trauma. The students themselves seem about 14 or 15? One comforting sight for me is to see them (and their teachers) dressed in casual clothes and not school uniforms as in the UK.
The new teacher is Pierre, like his predecessor a man in early middle age. Laurent Lafitte was 45 when he made the film but his character announces he is 40. He discovers that the class he must take over is a select group of very high flyers. There are just 12 students and he soon discovers that they are already a year ahead in curriculum terms. One of the two leaders immediately challenges Pierre, asking why at 40 he is still a substitute teacher? The school itself is located in a large country house in a wealthy rural area. Reviews suggest this is meant to be an élite private school but there seems to be involvement from the local mayor and ‘city hall’. (I understand that ‘private’ schools contracted by the state exist in France.) What is important, however, is that the school values the high marks its ‘gifted students’ are likely to get in exams and is therefore prepared to be indulgent towards them. It seems odd, therefore, that Pierre is appointed without evidence of vetting.
It doesn’t take long for Pierre to recognise that six of the 12 stick very closely together and that the six includes the two class representatives at the weekly teachers meeting. After a few classroom incidents it’s likely that older film fans will recognise the narrative of The Midwich Cuckoos (aka The Village of the Damned, UK 1960) in which a group of alien children are born in a village and grow very quickly especially in terms of intelligence, with telepathic abilities. There is a sequence later in School’s Out when the threatening side of the group is cleverly used in thriller mode. Pierre finds himself in a classic situation, feeling he must spy on the students to discover what they are up to, but also aware that they are working on him and putting him under pressure. The other teaching staff seem less concerned about the student behaviour. I was also reminded at moments of the German film, The Wave (Die Welle, 2008) which again has a rather different storyline but shares the same starting point of a single teacher engaged with a class in a project with a basis in social psychology and group behaviour.
There is no point in spoiling the narrative and I’ve left plenty of interesting detail to uncover. The 2002 storyline has been updated and the real reason for the students’ behaviour arguably makes more sense in 2018 than it did in 2002. But that doesn’t mean that the plotting works. As some of the original novel reviewers suggest, the script seems unable to resolve what, in the most basic terms, the film is ‘about’. The more the thriller genre narrative takes hold, the stranger and more frustrating the school-based drama becomes. I don’t think we ever meet any of the parents of the six high flyers and the school’s headteacher seems only dimly aware of the potential trouble they might cause. The head is played by Pascal Greggory who also plays a similar kind of character in The Page Turner (La tourneuse de pages, France 2006) in which his wife, a musician, is psychologically undermined by a young woman. There are many potential sub-plots in School’s Out that might be explored – or might have been excised. I did enjoy watching the film but in the end I felt a little dissatisfied. It is available to buy or rent on Youtube. Here is the trailer (with English subs):
Such is the difficulty of tracking films via festival screenings that I’d forgotten that Nick reviewed this film on the blog when it appeared at the Leeds Film Festival in 2018. His take (much the same as mine) is here.
I tend to choose my films ‘blind’ at film festivals: i.e. I pack as many as I can in the time available. So I was a bit dismayed to see I’d chosen a mainstream film that will be in ‘cinemas everywhere’ in a couple of weeks. Add to that it is a period drama, not my favourite, and reliant on CGI for much of its running time, I could have been in for a stinker. I wasn’t.
There’s barely a film made without CGI (Bait is one) but the question is whether the audience notices it. It’s always been the case that there are two types of special effects: invisible and visible. The visible ones show us impossible scenes so Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (UK-US, 1963) are visible as are all the superheroes in Marvel movies. Invisible special effects are those that simulate what happens in the real world but are too expensive to stage – as such they are easily not perceived as special effects. One example of a ‘visible’ ‘invisible’ special effect would be the ‘in orbit’ location of Gravity because we know the actors were not filmed in space. The same is true of the brilliant staging of the balloon journey in The Aeronauts because we know that Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne could not be filmed in that location. I’m not arguing against visible special effects, only against films that rely upon them for their dramatic effect. There’s been a Twitter debate lately about whether Marvel films are cinema (Scorsese and Loach say ‘no’) and although The Aeronauts is CGI heavy the thrill of the narrative is such that it is very easy to forget that these special effects are visible.
The film is based on a ‘true story’, the highest balloon ascent to date in 1862, I’ve no idea the degree of truth contained in the narrative. That’s not the point of the film: it’s clear the gender politics, Jones is the action hero, are today’s. The narrative covers the 90 minute flight with numerous flashbacks to give context and it is the human drama, of Victorian adventurism and female repression, that roots the film in a believable world thus allowing us to truly care (well, I did) for the protagonists in peril.
Tom Harper directs the action sequences very well and credit is due to Michael Dawson and his team for the special effects. The suspension of disbelief is still required for the appreciation of film, I think, which is why most CGI-heavy movies leave me cold as I don’t believe them. It’s as because they look convincing, yes I can see the Hulk exists, that I don’t believe in them and they usually fail to engage me either intellectually or emotionally. In The Aeronauts I knew the actors were ‘green screening’ but was so engrossed I forgot.
It seems scarcely credible that Kiss Me Deadly is over 60 years old. It still carries a punch with its brilliant camerawork and editing and its story about a brutish man in pursuit of what turns about to be a disturbing pre-echo of a contemporary scare, referred to in the film as “the great whatsit”.
Mickey Spillane, author of the original novel, died in 2005. His obituaries faithfully recorded his enormous popularity in the 1950s with millions of paperbacks sold and the establishment of the aptly named Mike Hammer as a certain kind of American hero. Misogynistic and fascistic, Hammer is a private eye who blunders his way to a ‘solution’ of each case with excessive violence – about as far from Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe as you can get. Spillane had a strange relationship with Hollywood, appearing both as himself and as Hammer in a couple of films and also seeing his stories and his hero taken on by an unlikely group of filmmakers.
Victor Saville was a well-known British director who began making films in the 1920s, was successful in the UK in the 1930s and went to Hollywood in the 1940s as a producer-director for MGM. In 1953 Saville formed Parklane Pictures and bought the rights to four Mickey Spillane novels, simply on the basis of their popularity. He directed two of the films himself (The Long Wait, 1954 and My Gun is Quick, 1957) and produced the other two (I, the Jury 1951 and Kiss Me Deadly). The films made very good profits and Saville next identified Ian Fleming novels as similarly lucrative properties, but was too early into the market and couldn’t make an appropriate deal with United Artists.
Kiss Me Deadly was less commercially successful than the other Parklane films, but it has gained a high critical reputation as one of the two great ‘late period’ films noirs (sharing the honour with Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1957)) and credited as a major influence on the directors of La nouvelle vague in France at the end of the 1950s.
Robert Aldrich (1918-83)
Parklane hired producer-director Robert Aldrich to make Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich was from a wealthy Eastern family of bankers, but he turned out to be one of the most radical filmmakers in post-war Hollywood. University-educated, he got a job at RKO through a relative’s influence and learned his trade as an assistant to directors such as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Lewis Milestone, Charles Chaplin and Joseph Losey. He made several programmes for television in 1952-3 and directed four features before 1955, including two Westerns for the Burt Lancaster-Harold Hecht company, Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954). These early films helped introduce a new kind of ‘tough’ and more ‘realistic’ Western with a focus on the Apache and American incursions into Mexico. Aldrich and Lancaster returned to similar territory with Ulzana’s Raid (1972) an unsettling film with clear references to Vietnam. Aldrich was a radical who enjoyed turning Hollywood expectations upside down. He must have been intrigued with the possibility of Hammer as hero/anti-hero on a quest in a world with no clear moral order. Ralph Meeker turned out to be perfect casting for Hammer and Aldrich went on to become the leading ‘tough guy’ action director of the next thirty years.
The script with its witty one liners and ironic references to high culture is by A. I. Bezzerides, writer on pictures for Bogart, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and another leftist to dismay Spillane. The wonderful cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, a regular with Aldrich and later Stanley Kramer, who had previously lensed the film noir D.O.A. (1950) and Jo Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951). With art director William Glasgow, also an Aldrich regular, he created the first ‘modern’ noir.