IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Humiliation and disgust register when we acknowledge that James Baldwin’s 1974 book is as relevant today as it was when published. Though the book hardly lends itself to a big screen presentation, writer-director Barry Jenkins (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for last year’s Best Picture winner MOONLIGHT) brings his cinematic artistry and deft touch to a story that is a touching love story wrapped in a tale of social injustice.

Filmmaker Jenkins has succeeded in delivering the rare film that is filled with both tender, warm, smile-inducing moments and moments of absolute frustration that fill us with outrage. It’s a beautiful film with a sweet story of love between two soul mates, and it’s also a story of race, class, and Harlem in the 70’s. The film begins with a Baldwin quote informing us that “Beale Street” is born from black roots – it’s not geographical, but rather cultural. He’s certainly not referring to today’s tourist destination in Memphis.

Tish (terrific newcomer Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James, played Jesse Owens in RACE) have been best friends since early childhood. They are now ages 19 and 22 respectively, and that friendship has blossomed into romantic attraction. Their fairy tale love story is shattered when a racist cop (Ed Skrein) falsely accuses Fonny of rape, and Fonny goes to prison. And if that’s not enough, we witness the scene where Tish and her family invite Fonny’s family over to announce she is carrying his baby. Fonny’s judgmental and religious zealot of a mother reacts with indignation and is beyond cruel to Tish. It’s one of the most emotionally explosive scenes of any movie all year. Regina King gives a powerhouse performance as Tish’s mom, and she goes toe-to-toe with Fonny’s mom played by Aunjunae Ellis (Yula Mae from THE HELP). Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach, AQUAMAN) and Tish’s dad (Colman Domingo, SELMA) are stunned by the situation, and wisely take their discussions to the corner bar.

That incredible scene of families clashing is offset by the tenderness and soulfulness of the scenes showing Fonny and Tish together … whether on the neighborhood streets, in their apartment, or talking with a glass barrier between them. As the timeline gets bounced around, we see Fonny and his old buddy Daniel (Byron Tyree Henry) in one exceptional scene, and we also see the bond between Fonny and his café manager friend played by Diego Luna. The depth of these scenes is difficult to relay, and the film acts as both a character study and social commentary relevant to today’s issues. There is so much precision and attention to detail in the story-telling and acting. The color palettes transition depending on the mood of the scene, as does the music – the strings used by composer Nicholas Britell are very much a part of the Tish-Fonny love story, and the brassy jazz music cover the rest.

We get to know Fonny as an artist and charming young man smitten with Tish, who is a gentle and angelic soul. We see his changes while in prison, and we see how others react to her (based on their race, gender and age) as she works the perfume counter at a department story. Baldwin’s writing is spot on as Tish (in her role as narrator) says “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

Director Jenkins has delivered a special movie that is brilliantly constructed. It’s a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. Cinematographer James Laxton expertly captures the tone changes, and having the actors periodically look directly into the camera (at the viewer) proves quite powerful. This is romanticism vs. reality, and speaks to the power and beauty of love … and the strength to carry through even in an unjust situation brought on by a fractured society. It’s a beautiful film.

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SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

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