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

Rogue One

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

Director: Gareth Edwards,

Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy


The Star Wars prequels are more than bad movies, they are a profoundly disappointing missed opportunity. The idea was to expand on the story and the universe that we all loved and knew so well by turning the clock back and looking at where it all started. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness, the truth of Obi-Wan’s greatest failure, the terrible war that led to the destruction of the Jedi Order, the fall of the Republic and the ascent of the Galactic Empire; these were stories that we couldn’t wait to see unfold. Instead we got three poorly written, emotionally hollow, excessively CG’d movies complete with midichlorians, sand flirting and Jar Jar. Rogue One succeeds where these films failed, not just because it’s actually a half-decent flick, but because it actually brought something new to Star Wars and made the franchise as a whole better than it was before.

Set immediately before the events of A New Hope the film follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she is pulled into the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance after being freed from prison by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). He needs her help to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the lead architect of the newly-completed Death Star, so that they might learn about the weapon he has created. Aiding them is a team of rebels including the sassy reprogrammed droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the cynical mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the turncoat Imperial soldier Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Overseeing the completion of the Death Star is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose position is threatened when a security leak threatens to compromise all that he has worked for. From this leak Jyn learns of the existence of a design flaw hidden within the plans of the Death Star. What follows is a race against time as Jyn and her team try to uncover the nature of this weakness before the Empire can use their weapon to impose their will on the Galaxy.

There is a smaller story being told here than in any of the other Star Wars films which Edwards and Weitz try to make work by playing up the emotional stakes. The setup is not unlike The Magnificent Seven (or perhaps Seven Samurai, directed by one of George Lucas’ greatest influences, is the more appropriate comparison) where a team of ragtag individuals are driven by ideals of nobility, duty and morality to take on a perilous mission against impossible odds, along the way accepting that they will not all live to see it through. To this end the film works well for the most part. There is, for starters, a number of enjoyable, colourful characters to root for such as Chirrut, a man of faith whose actions (he believes) are driven by the Force, and K-2SO, who is basically C-3PO if he could also break Stormtroopers’ necks. Some of the motivations and personalities of these characters do leave something to be desired but there is just enough in there to make the film worthwhile. Jyn and Cassian are not exactly Leia and Han when it comes to likeability and memorability but I was happy to follow them for this one movie.

The first two thirds of the film do drag a bit as we jump from generic planet to generic planet waiting for our heroes to kick off the movie’s climax but, once they do, it is every bit worth the wait and is everything a Star Wars fan could possibly want from a climax. An epic space battle: check. The infiltration of an Imperial base: check. The greatest Darth Vader action scene in history: double check! That the film never quite found the time to truly define its characters the way A New Hope did does work against them as our emotional investment isn’t quite as strong as they probably wanted. While we do get to see their story-arcs fulfilled in some very good character moments, it is more affective than it is moving. You’ll be invested enough that the events will register with you, but they won’t really leave any sort of a lasting impact. Still, with that said, the spectacle of this climax is more than strong enough to be worthy of the Star Wars name.

As well as an astounding third act, Rogue One is also worth watching for the ways in which it ties in to A New Hope. By setting out to fix what is probably one of the most famous and often-debated plot holes in cinema, the story at large has become stronger for it. The Death Star’s Achilles Heel is no longer a deus ex machina, it is now an entirely justified plot device that adds a greater context and weight to Luke Skywalker’s fateful assault. Other tie-ins include the glorious return of Vader as well as Grand Moff Tarkin, recreated in the image of the late Peter Cushing. I’m ambivalent on his inclusion. While a part of me does feel uneasy about digitally manipulating a dead man’s image to make a movie, I can’t deny that another part of me was overjoyed to see him again as the marvellously sinister villain that he had played so well. Personally, I think that I can accept this choice as long as Disney and Lucasfilm agree not to make a habit out of it (especially in light of the tragic and untimely death of Carrie Fisher).

The strengths and weaknesses of Rogue One are interesting to look at when comparing it to The Force Awakens. While that film did have misgivings in terms of plot, it made up for those misgivings (for me at least) by virtue of its new, wonderfully engaging characters such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8. Rogue One has a more individual, better-told story in its favour, but the emotional resonance is not as strong because the characters are not as compelling. They’re fine in that they serve their roles, have a few good moments and keep you invested for the duration of the story, but they don’t have that strong sense of identity or the enduring quality that has made the original characters or their successors as celebrated as they are. Rogue One is, all in all, a very decent film and a creditable addition to the Star Wars canon. By taking us away from the Skywalker story for a little bit, this film has more than any other Star Wars movie shown us how big this universe truly is and how much life there is in its history and civilisations. I look forward to learning more in their future spin-off instalments.

★★★★