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FILM REVIEW: Queen & Slim

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Queen & Slim is on its own path. Groundbreaking for its rich, layered storytelling (Lena Waithe, Emmy-winner TV’s Master of None), stylish direction (Melina Matsoukas, Grammy-winner Best Music Video Beyoncè: Formation), provocative contemplations on race and police abuse and two performances that will redefine how black men and women are portrayed on screen.

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Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen & Slim

By Dwight Brown, NNPA Newswire Film Critic

It’s lyrical. Like an extended poem with waves of emotion, heady rumination, love proclamations and lost souls gathering around a common issue.

Some will recollect the true-life story of Bonnie and Clyde, but they gained fame for crimes and robbing banks. A closer comparison is Thelma & Louise, two feminist icons who were pushed into rebellion. Yet their story never involved an intimacy between the two that included sexual attraction and love.

Queen & Slim is on its own path. Groundbreaking for its rich, layered storytelling (Lena Waithe, Emmy-winner TV’s Master of None), stylish direction (Melina Matsoukas, Grammy-winner Best Music Video Beyoncè: Formation), provocative contemplations on race and police abuse and two performances that will redefine how black men and women are portrayed on screen.

(from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in "Queen & Slim," directed by Melina Matsoukas.

(from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

They meet at a diner in nowhere Ohio. She, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith TV’s Jett), is an aloof and exacting criminal defense lawyer, with braids down her back and a disposition more sour than a lemon. He, Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out), a salesclerk, is her polar opposite. Congenial, funny, sardonic sloppy. He chews his food with his mouth open, making noises that could wake the dead. It annoys her. He’s completely oblivious. Fate didn’t bring these disparate souls together. Blame it on Tinder.

Driving home from their rendezvous, a siren flares, red and white lights flash and his porcelain-colored Honda Accord is pulled over by a very white and overly aggressive cop (Sturgill Simpson, Grammy-winner Best Country Album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”). The car is searched. Nothing is found.

Bokeem Woodbine as Uncle Earl in "Queen & Slim," directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Bokeem Woodbine as Uncle Earl in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

It’s as if the police officer is extra pissed because he can’t find drugs or alcohol. His anger grows. Slim is calm. Queen, as attorneys can be, is indignant. The situation escalates. A gun is drawn, and shots are fired. Queen and Slim go on the lam, driving down endless highways, trying to escape. He’s not sure what to do. She: “Keep running until we come up with a better plan.”

In the first five minutes the tension between the two draws you in. Contrary personalities, yet common cultural threads. Conversations about the movie Love Jones and other Black pop knowledge banter set their personae: They are hip, smart, modern African Americans. People you may have known in college, on your 9-5, from a dinner party… They’ve got urbane exteriors. Underneath they are scarred and vulnerable. You want to watch them court and spark. You want them to survive.

(from left) Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Naomi (Melanie Kalfkenny, standing) in "Queen & Slim," directed by Melina Matsoukas.

(from left) Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Naomi (Melanie Kalfkenny, standing) in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

This is the mark of brainy, sensitive and socially aware screenwriting that will likely propel Lena Waithe from TV gigs to steady feature film work. Her mixed bag of indelible characters include: an ex-con uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Jason’s Lyric); the con’s ladyfriend (Indya Moore, TV’s Pose); a good-willed sheriff (Benito Martinez, TV’s 13 Reasons Why); and a war vet (Flea, bassist for The Red Hot Chili Peppers).

Police aggression in the black community ignites a journey that’s laced with intrigue, thrills, narrow escapes, family drama and a romance that goes from highly unlikely to sensual bliss. All of it keeps viewers guessing what’s next—right until the end. For good measure, provocative dialogue expresses the characters’ subjective attitudes. Queen: “Nothing scares a white man more than a black man on a horse.” Slim: “Why?” Queen: “Because they have to look up to them.”

Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen in "Queen & Slim," directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Taking a script that is as rich and descriptive as a Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon) or Bernice McFadden (Gathering of Waters) novel and turning it into eye-catching cinema requires the talent of a gifted director. Music video turned cable TV director Melina Matsoukas (HBO’s Insecure) is up to that challenge. Action sequences have verve. Dramatic scenes are well staged and crafted. Romantic moments duly erotic.

Between intense conversations, conflicts and deaths, Matsoukas gives the footage time to breath, with carefree moments: Queen sits on the windowsill of a gold-colored Mercedes-Benz station wagon, as it travels down a two-lane road. Sun on her face, wind in her hair. In endless sequences of supreme tension, it’s an oasis moment. The kind video directors imagine freely, when other filmmakers do not.

Daniel Kaluuya as Slim in "Queen & Slim," directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Daniel Kaluuya as Slim in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

The keen eye of cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (’71) frames scenes perfectly and makes chocolate skin look incandescent. The creations of production designer Karen Murphy (A Star Is Born) make a stately Georgia home and a mechanic’s shop equally impressive. An engaging playlist includes the most modern neo soul music and old gritty blues. Shiona Turini’s costumes steal the show. To her credit, Slim’s borrowed wine-colored velour track suit and Queen’s tiger-striped mini-dress and reptile skin white boots could become iconic film garb.

Daniel Kaluuya is a photographer’s gift. The camera lens loves his guy-next-door face, large eyes, full lips and dark complexion. He plays Slim completely understated, tender in the right moments, brave in others. His is a subtle performance, fueled by inner strength. Turner-Smith’s character arc shines as she takes Queen from the impervious, to the needy, to the courageous. In the beginning her long braids weigh her down, just like her cranky disposition. Later, when she’s shorn, it’s as if a duck has left and a swan arrived. Happier. Adaptive. In the mood for love. With a beauty that would shame a goddess.

It’s been a minute sense Bokeem Woodbine was in a film that properly displayed his talents. It’s as if his career has come full circle. Moore, Flea, Simpson, Colby Boothman as a convenience store clerk and Jahi Di’Allo Winston as a young martyr complete a compelling supporting cast that turns in superb ensemble acting.

More judicious cutting (editor Pete Beaudreau, Beast of No Nation) could have trimmed the 2hr 12 min. run time. Scenes at the uncle’s house could have been shorter. Chopping off a couple of road sequences might have made the film tighter. But it’s doubtful the target audience will complain about the movie’s rhythm or compass.

The mix of racial/social hot-button issues may make some squirm. Crime/drama/thriller elements will likely keep viewers engrossed. The love story and carnal scenes could inspire couples to hold hands.

These engaging qualities should attract and satiate urban audiences and romantics looking for a unique, soul-searching allegory hidden inside a crime getaway film. Queen: “I’m scared.” Slim; “I’ll be brave enough for the both of us.”

Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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