men the Netflix thriller End of the Road, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’ character Reggie finds himself in an isolated roadside motel, looking at a bag full of shrink-wrapped money hidden near a man presumed dead. . Reggie grabs that bag, ignoring lessons learned from movies like No Country for Old Men and A Simple Plan, where easy money comes with a body count.
Maybe Reggie felt that the rules in that genre don’t apply since those movies were always about white people. End of the Road is distinguished primarily by leaning on its black cast and crew, headed by Queen Latifah. The film climaxes when she announces, “I make my own rules.”
By the time the mic drop arrives, End of the Road has already veered from the lame thriller about people doing desperate things for a bag of cartel money into territory that’s far more ridiculous and parodic, although that may be pleasant in its own right. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing Queen Latifah break free of the bonds in force to take down a trailer park full of neo-Nazis?
Queen Latifah plays Brenda, a woman at the end of her rope, mourning her husband who recently died of cancer. She mortgaged her house in Los Angeles to pay for her chemotherapy. Now he is gone and so is her home. Brenda, Ella’s no-nonsense teenage daughter Kelly (Mychala Faith Lee), Ella’s pre-teen son Cam (Shaun Dixon), and Ella’s charmingly irresponsible brother Reggie pack up in their truck to move to Houston.
They deal with some microaggressions on the road before stopping at a motel in Arizona. That’s where they hear a commotion and a gunshot in the next room. Just then, Brenda announces to her family that she’s an ER nurse, as if they didn’t know, and she jumps in to treat the victim to no avail. The victim is also a thug who took on a swashbuckling villain named Mr. Cross by stealing his money. Reggie is in the mood to do the same.
Soon, Brenda is receiving cryptic calls from what sounds like the caller from the Scary Movie franchise. She is actually Mr. Cross. He doesn’t do movie trivia, but he likes to play games. What unfolds is a race-against-the-clock thriller with road rage and racists that’s mostly predictable, save for a couple of howl-worthy developments.
The action is clumsy. The writing is supported by tropes. The dramatic scenes overestimate the artistic range of a charming rapper-turned-actor like Bridges. And director Millicent Shelton makes some curious stylistic decisions along the way, whether it’s amethyst lighting or set-ups that have the feel of an R&B music video.
The latter aesthetic makes sense when you consider Shelton’s background. He started out working in wardrobe on Do the Right Thing and directing music videos for artists like Kwamé and Salt-N-Pepa before writing and directing television shows as varied as 30 Rock and P-Valley. Simply being a black woman working behind the scenes in Hollywood for more than three decades makes Shelton an unsung icon. And there are moments in End of the Road that are probably so powerful because of her perspective.
The close-up, for example, introduces us to Brenda through the convex security mirror in a gas station convenience store, immediately reminding us of how people in the film perceive a woman with dreadlocks. She is someone to watch out for. And Queen Latifah’s best moment in the movie is a scene where Brenda sits in her feelings, exhausted by how much she has to smile and bear it.
Already on their road trip, but before the money hits the scene, the family is accosted by two dangerously aggressive racist mountain men with a rifle in their truck. There is a game of chicken and then a confrontation along the way. To defuse the situation and ensure the safety of her black family, Brenda apologizes to them, an extreme humiliation considering what they just went through. When white men laugh as if they’ve been joking all along, it’s excruciating to watch Queen Latifah’s moving, angry and hurt performance, as if she’s trying to choke back her own tears.
This is a movie that has very few authentic moments and many absurd ones. But that little performance, directed by a fellow black woman, rings heartbreakingly real.