Obviously this film is addressing a lot of issues, to varying degrees of success depending on your viewpoint, but at least one thing it’s asking is whether it’s possible to make a romance involving two people who don’t actually really seem to like each other at all (at least, initially). It’s also a lovers on the run story where it’s the forces pursuing them that are from the wrong side of the tracks, because our central characters are largely upstanding people who’ve been forced into a corner. It’s not an obvious continuation of my week’s romance theme, but it’s an interesting film.
I first became aware of this film via the responses of the film critics I follow on Twitter, a lot of whom are Black American women and it’s fair to say the reception was largely critical. This hasn’t been the response across the board of course (it has an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, whatever that ultimately means), and it hasn’t even been the unanimous response from Black (or Black women) critics — and that’s as it should be, though it does make me wary of claiming to understand or critique the film, no matter that its two lead actor are British. Clearly it’s deploying a long and complex cultural history of Black American lives that I, as a white British man, couldn’t hope to fully grasp, but I somewhat expected better from Lena Waithe’s script. It’s based on a story by James Frey, whose name should presumably cause at least a few alarm bells to ring (given his own literary history), but I don’t know the background to the script. I can say it uses two largely unlikeable characters (albeit for different reasons, though Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim is clearly the more approachable at the start of the film) and has them go on a Journey — by which I mean, it’s a road movie, but it’s also a capitalised-J Journey.
As befits the director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, it is a gorgeous evocation of a largely unseen America, as the two journey towards the American South, with dreams of getting to Cuba and (they hope) freedom. It’s visually ravishing, and it very much captures a feeling of youth on the run, so when the script imposes certain more fixed ideas it becomes doubly disappointing. There’s a sex scene by Queen’s mother’s grave intercut with a #BlackLivesMatter-type protest in which a kid they’ve just encountered kills a (Black) cop, which is particularly odd (upsetting yes, but also misjudged) given the jarring editing, the meaning (or lack thereof) of the action, and also the fact that this protest seems to be happening hundreds of miles away from where the original incident occurred. Other events happen for equally obscure reasons — more it seems to develop a mood than strictly narratively motivated at times. It’s a rather nasty character, Queen’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), who feels like the most fully rounded depiction, though his story is deeply layered with misogyny, which I can accept is supposed to be part of the film’s intention of excavating systemic racism and generational trauma, but doesn’t quite land.
Still, I am removed from this location and culture, so I found a lot to like in the way the film looks and moves, and hope for something even stronger from both director and writer in future. In the meantime, here are some links by writers with more understanding than I have:
* B!tch Media (by Jourdain Searles);
* Just Add Color (by Monique Jones);
* National Review (by Armond White); and
* a positive review in The Undefeated (by Soraya McDonald).
Director Melina Matsoukas; Writer Lena Waithe and James Frey; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 10 February 2020.