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.

★★★★★

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Deadpool

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Leslie Uggams, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapičić

Director: Tim Miller

Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick


In this day and age when every second blockbuster coming out at any given time is yet another superhero movie, it isn’t hard to understand why some audiences are becoming wearied with superhero fatigue. This is why Deadpool feels like such an invigorating breath of fresh air. There isn’t a single superhero movie out there quite like it. It took a character that most audiences were unfamiliar with and portrayed him using a style that defied the family-friendly thrills of the Marvel movies and the dark, gritty action of the DC movies. This is a film that was uninterested in forced tie-ins to other movies, studio-mandated content and PG-13 audience appeal. The Deadpool crew was focused above all on making a good movie that was true to the source material and that is exactly what they made. It is not kid-friendly and it is not inoffensive; it is the gory, sweary, indecent movie that Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller set out to make.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary with a relentlessly twisted sense of humour who finds his perfect match in the equally depraved Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin). Shortly after proposing to her however, Wade is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides he doesn’t want to put her through the ordeal of watching him die. Upon leaving Vanessa, Wade is approached by a mysterious figure who claims that his employer can cure him. This employer turns out to be Ajax (Ed Skrein), a scientist and weapons expert whose experiments subject Wade to an agonising and prolonged period of torture. Wade eventually escapes and discovers that he has acquired enhanced strength and reflexes as well as a healing factor but has also been left horribly disfigured. Adopting an alias as the masked vigilante Deadpool, Wade embarks on a campaign of revenge to track down Ajax and have his disfigurement cured.

What sets this movie apart from every other superhero movie is its wicked sense of humour. From the very beginning all the way to the end, Deadpool is packed with dark humour, fourth wall breaks, over-the-top violence, excessive profanity and visual gags that puts most American comedies out there to shame. At the centre of it all is Ryan Reynolds killing it as the character he has been waiting his whole life to play. He is energetic, charismatic and hilarious as this character and is wholly committed to representing him. Reynolds is an actor I’ve often struggled to go along with, so I’m happy to see that he’s finally found a role that allows him to truly flourish. Deadpool is a supremely entertaining character who perfectly matches the film’s excessive, sporadic, almost cartoonish tone who is at his best when he jumps all over the place dropping F-bombs, slicing heads off and making the most hysterically inappropriate comments possible. I also greatly enjoyed the romance between Wade and Vanessa who share a vibrant chemistry. Their relationship is weird, crazy and unconventional, but it works for them and proves to be quite touching.

Even though Deadpool is identified above all as being a superhero movie, the superhero parts were actually the ones I enjoyed the least. More than anything else it was the humour that made this movie for me. Therefore whenever the film chose to be serious and advance the whole revenge storyline that was taking place, I became less interested. I got that the film needed a villain and conflict in order to progress, but it still felt a little stale to me. Whenever a serious scene came along, it felt to me like a 5-10 minute expository segment I had to sit through in order to get to the good part. It didn’t help that the main villain Ajax was utterly bland and forgettable. The action itself was a lot of fun to watch as it fully embraced its R rating and allowed room for much humour, but I think the comedy may have somewhat overshadowed the excitement.

Deadpool is the exact kind of movie that needed to be made with the blockbuster climate the way that it is. Made with a minimal budget and a surplus of creative freedom, this film has shown definitively that superhero movies do not need to be huge in order to be good and do not need to be all-inclusive in order to be successful. Deadpool is coarse, uncouth, unrefined and unapologetic. It is exactly the movie that it wants to be and is a great pleasure to watch for any viewer not put off by its dark, gimmicky humour or its comically extreme use of violence. My only big issue with the movie is that I found it to be more humourous than I found it to be thrilling. Still, the humour is more than enough to make this an enjoyable movie as it takes just as much pleasure in laughing at itself as it does in laughing at the dozens of other superhero movies that have taken over Hollywood. At the very least, it is certainly a step up from X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

★★★★