If Beale Street Could Talk

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephen James, Colman Domingo, Tayonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King

Director: Barry Jankins

Writer: Barry Jenkins


One of the most extraordinary things about If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is how specific its story is to the experience of these characters and yet how universal the emotions and themes that it conjures feel. Like in Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight, which found such aching beauty in the tormented life of a gay, African-American man and his harsh upbringing in the rundown, drug-infested slums of Florida, Beale Street taps into the sensuous depth of feeling and severe social-political realities of its story to craft a profoundly poetic work of cinema. This is a story about a young man who is accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit and of his bride-to-be in her desperate attempt to clear his name, but the film is also so much more. It is both a love story and a coming of age story, a striking portrait of the realities of being black in America and a song of light and colour that transcends both time and space. Through intimate, lovingly composed camerawork, the generous democratisation of its time-jumping story across different perspectives and the depiction of such racially-charged themes as housing discrimination, police bigotry and unjust incarceration, what Jenkins has created is a magnificent and moving picture that, above, all is about love, loss, grace and faith.

Literally speaking, Beale Street is in Memphis, Tennessee, and is remembered as the place where such legendary black musicians as W.C. Handy, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters invented the blues. According to the Baldwin quote that opens the film however Beale Street is, to him, the street in New Orleans where his father, Louis Armstrong and jazz were all born. “Every black person born in America” he says, “was born on Beale Street”. Beale Street refers to any street in the USA, “whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or Harlem, New York,” where African-American people lived and died, loved and lost and built enduring communities where they could be free, happy and black. The same opening quotation also talks about “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy”. Thus the film, just like the novel its based on, endeavours to tell a story set mainly in Harlem, just one of the countless hidden stories that occurred within the Beale Street of 1970s New York. The story is fictional and yet it speaks to truths that Baldwin, Jenkins and the other residents of Beale Street have lived and learned over the course of their own lives. It is a story rooted in its time and place yet seems to be about the world entire, such is the legacy of Beale Street.

This particular story is about 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her sweetheart Fonny (Stephen James), a boy she’s known since they were kids together, who is behind bars and awaiting trial on the charge of rape, a crime which we’ll soon learn he could not have committed. Tish is pregnant and determined to get her husband-to-be home before the baby is born, but that prospect grows all the more unlikely when Fonny’s accuser, a Puerto Rican woman who picked him out of a line up, flees the country. Without her, the case is reduced to Fonny’s word against that of Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), the cop who claims to have seen him fleeing the scene and whom we learn harbours a grudge for the young man. We don’t learn all of this straight away though because the film adopts a non-linear approach to the story and starts off in the middle with Tish visiting Fonny in jail to share the special news with him (“I hope that nobody ever has to look at anybody they love through glass” she muses in voiceover). We then follow her home where she breaks the same news to her family. Her parents Sharon (Regina King, fantastic every second) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Tayonah Parris) are worried about her future but promise to support her no matter what. The same cannot be said for Fonny’s family whose God-fearing mother Alice (Aunjanue Ellis) condemns Tish for conceiving a child out of wedlock.

While the film jumps back and forth in time and switches perspectives, the focus throughout remains on the love between Tish and Fonny. As we follow Tish we travel back in time with her to a simpler and happier stage when she and Fonny were childhood friends discovering something that hadn’t been there before (or maybe it had been, they just hadn’t seen it). When the two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, there is a certain radiance that engulfs them. The whole world feels warmer and softer when they’re together and we can feel it as well in the bright colours exuding their warm glow and the intimate ways in which Jenkins’ frames the couple, favouring close-ups that lock squarely onto their faces as if the film were trying to break the fourth wall. Sometimes the film goes even deeper than that, focusing on their eyes and mouths with everything else out of focus. There is a love scene that the two share which feels far more tender and dreamy than it does voyeuristic because it was discreetly and lovingly captured by a director who loves people and knows how to photograph their beauty. The love between Tish and Fonny isn’t lustful but spiritual; it’s as if when one stares into the eyes of the other as they make love, they can see right into their very soul.

The reality of the world they live in however means that they cannot simply live their lives as two souls in love. Whether it’s moving into a cheap apartment in a converted warehouse because most New York landlords are unwilling to rent a place to a black couple or happening to get on the wrong side of a racist cop in a chance encounter, the world will not abide the purity and grace they share as a black couple. When Fonny is arrested, it’s a given that the justice system is ready to fail him at every turn. In their effort to clear Fonny’s name the family turns to a lawyer they cannot afford and even use what little money they can raise to send Sharon to Puerto Rico, hoping against hope that she might track down the absconded woman who accused Fonny of this crime and persuade her to drop the charge. The brutalities of the prison life that people like Fonny are subjected to are also made clear to us, not through the explicit and graphic depiction you might expect in an episode of Oz, but through a sombre monologue delivered by Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), a friend of Fonny’s who spent a year inside after being convicted on a similarly trumped-up charge. Beale Street could very easily have been a bleak film; the story it tells is furious and tragic and its ending is at best ambiguous. Jenkins however finds hope and beauty wherever he can and the film he has made is a deeply rich and emotionally resonant one.

★★★★★

Advertisements

The Birth of a Nation

Cast: Nate Parker, Arnie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union

Director: Nate Parker

Writers: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin


To say that Nate Parker’s film has attracted some controversy would be a gross understatement. The last couple of years have seen a dramatic intensification of racial issues in the USA, from the augmented outcries of racial attitudes inspired by Trump’s campaign to the prevalent police brutalities that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, so a movie about Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion was certainly going to grab people’s attention. The title itself, the same used for D.W. Griffith’s technically magnificent but despicably racist silent epic, shows how intent Parker is on making a loud, provocative statement. Then there’s the negative publicity that Parker himself and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin have received with the resurfacing of a rape charge made against them both in 1999. When a film is engulfed by such a critical and emotional storm as this, it can be difficult to look past the controversy and see the film itself for what it is. When I tried, what I found was that the film, while having some very admirable qualities, was ultimately not worth defending.

The film tells the real-life story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), the leader of the most famous slave rebellion in American history. As a child Nat was taught how to read using the Bible and grew to become a preacher. After displaying a natural charisma and an uncanny power of influence over his fellow slaves, Nat’s owner Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer) agrees to lend Nat to the other plantations so that he might preach and spread a message of submission and compliance to their slaves. Nat however starts to question the virtue of the gospel he is ordered to spread as he witnesses countless atrocities at the hands of the white slave owners, including the beating and raping of his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Instead Nat finds inspiration in the Christian teachings which foretell a day of divine justice for the enslaved against the masters and becomes a prophet for the slaves. This results in a revolt led by Nat against the white slave owners in an attempt to seize their freedom and salvation.

By portraying Nat Turner as a Christ-like figure it’s clear that Parker’s chosen approach is to mythologise his story, a fair approach that we’ve seen before in cinema (it’s the same approach that Parker’s friend and advisor Mel Gibson used in Braveheart). The trouble is that Parker idolises his hero to the extent that he fundamentally undermines the very cause he was fighting for. The film portrays Turner as an enigmatic figure, a man destined for greatness and whose own personal suffering, rather than that of his contemporaries, serves as the film’s dramatic crux. When the two major crimes which ultimately trigger the violent climax are perpetrated, that is the rapes of Cherry Turner and of Esther (Gabrielle Union), Parker places the emotional emphasis not on those two women or even their families but solely on Nat. His outrage is what sparks the rebellion. The individual thoughts, hopes and fears of his followers as well as the institutional offences of slavery and the national, political connotations of their mutiny are swept to the side; this rebellion is all about Nat. The other characters don’t exist except to reflect Nat’s greatness.

It’s clear that Parker identifies strongly with Nat Turner and he portrays him confidently and, at times, powerfully. When Nat is taken to the other plantations to deliver his sermons, he witnesses several atrocious crimes carried out by the slave owners and feels the silent judgement of those slaves who regard him as he stands in his position of favour with the whites, serving as a tool for suppression. Here Parker conveys a wonderful mixture of emotions: shame, guilt, empathy, compassion, betrayal, impotence. It is however difficult, and probably wrong, to separate the art from the artist when, like Parker, they have directed, produced, written the picture and cast themselves in the starring role. Thus, when Parker emphasises Turner’s torment and outrage even at the detriment of the story he’s trying to tell, it betrays a vanity on his part. There is a desire here to portray Nat as an almost superhuman figure in his campaign against slavery and it is this emphasis which creates a great disparity between his character’s motivation and the symbol he is supposed to represent.

There is a great story here that is trying to be told but the film ultimately falls victim to Parker’s ambitions. The film seems more concerned with glorifying Nat Turner (and, in turn, Nate Parker) than it is with understanding its subject. It is certainly directed with the conviction of an artist with a powerful story to tell and is hardly ever dull, nor is it without moments of brilliance. However, unlike such recent films as 12 Years a Slave, Parker got so caught up with his own vision and artistry that he ultimately lost sight of that story and the terrible tragedy surrounding it. When a film depicts such a notorious historical episode as slavery, signifying such vital themes as intolerance, prejudice, oppression, subjugation and hatred, there is often a sense that praise for the film is almost compulsory by virtue of it portraying such an important and powerful subject. The Birth of a Nation however is unworthy of its subject. It takes a story of indignation and bloody retribution set during a shameful chapter of history that still haunts people to this day, and reduces it to a vanity project.

★★