Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 25, 2018 9:11 pm 
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A fraught, beautifully filmed Harlem love story from James Baldwin

It would be strange to speak of If Beale Street Could Talk as if it were a letdown after Moonlight, because in its way this new movie is impeccable. But Moonlight was very striking, won a raft of Oscars and nominations, and put Barry Jenkins on the map. He is also stepping into somewhat more "staid," or "hallowed" material in adapting a James Baldwin novel, a step back to a period (the Seventies, in Harlem). This is a tale - or more than a tale an experience - that is almost too beautiful, touching, and sweet to be true. The love story at the center of it seems idealized, the two lovers, Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo 'Fonny' Hunt (Stephan James) too beautiful, innocent and true to be true. But maybe it's a fear of feeling that makes one pull back from the scenes in the film and not feel them till it's over. In fact in her piece in Cinema Scope about the film Sarah-tai Black says Baldwin doesn't really tell a love story but make us feel love: "Baldwin’s work is less expository than it is a feeling made concrete," Black wrote: "a translation of black consciousness, space, and time into words that are as generous as they are unambiguous." In Beale Street one has the sense of entering into a heady set of sensations, not of our time, but very much of the African American experience. Their intensity is almost too powerful to bear.

What is unfamiliar is so much of the black experience, which is enormous hope and passion and yet, conflict and ever-present disappointment. You realize plenty of ugliness is here. The "happy" ending of the film, after all, is itself a scene when Tish and their little son are visiting Fonny in prison and there's no way of knowing when he's going to be out. He's been out of prison only in flashback. And there is the bitter conflict in the two lovers' families, and the vindictive racist white cop (Ed Skrein), the fearful and hostile Hispanic woman, the hostility on the street, the constant economic hardship.

But there remains indeed something too pretty and too worshipful about this movie. As Variety's Peter Debruge wrote, what Jenkins has done here is "the equivalent of turn Allen Ginsberg’s 'Howl' into a Douglas Sirk movie (or put Alice Walker’s’ 'The Color Purple' through the Steven Spielberg filter." It's enchanting a lot of the time, but it's a little too dreamy, and too warm-toned and lovely to look upon to seem real. (Debruge points out the costumes are too pretty, and too distracting.) This lacks the rakish originality of Moonlight or the tartness of Jenkins' earlier Medicine for Melancholy.

The film centers around a child. After Fonny is incarcerated Tish discovers she is pregnant. She visits him and tells him and he greets this news with joy, even though he is sad that he cannot be there for the birth and the child. And this is where we learn about their love, and then there are scenes to show their first sex, and the moment when the baby was conceived. The big scene - it could be a gorgeous, vivid scene from a play - is the one where Fonny's parents are invited over and told, with Tish's parents present. All hell breaks loose because Fonny's mother (Aunjanue Ellis), who is Sanctified, rails against Tish as an evil woman and hails down almost a curse on her, and as a result she's physically attacked. The encounter ends horribly, revealing the enormous passions and hostilities that these people carry around with them. In the context established by this scene the purity of Fonny and Tish's love takes on an air of heroism.

Another memorable sequence is the one where the couple finds a place to live after a long search and reportedly many rejections, whenever the potential renter sets eyes on Fonny. They've found a young Jewish man who's willing, even glad, to rent them an empty industrial space where there is nothing around but sweatshops. Fonny and the man, Levy (Dave Franco, in a charming performance) do a little dance, pretending to lift up and load in a refrigerator and a stove, for in reality there are no appliances. It's a very touching, unusual scene. The place is like an artist's live-work space, which is appropriate, because Fonny is an aspiring sculptor. This is another way that this big, robust young man is delicate: he's sensitive about his art.

But the awfulness comes in the efforts to defend Fonny against the charge of rape that got him in prison. The lawyer tries, money is raised, and the rape victim being traced back to where she's fled, to Puerto Rico, Trish's mother Karen (Regina King) goes there and confronts an evil man, Pedrocito (a creepy Diego Luna). She gets to see the rape victim, but with disastrous results: she won't withdraw her dubious police lineup ID of Fonny and is so upset by the encounter that she disappears, and the case must be put on hold. The free-flowing flashbacks from different times underline the quality Black describes, that this is a "a translation of black consciousness, space, and time," not a story.

Jenkins has gotten rich performances from his cast. The two lovers repeatedly are photographed solo, full on, looking directly into the camera. Their openness and sweetness are overwhelming and again, almost hard to look at. The little boy, Kaden Byrd, who plays Alonso Junior, also looks straight into the camera with a mixture of boldness and guilelessness. He doesn't seem like an actor, has none of the usual young actor slickness. He's just like a little boy. He stumbles a little, his speech is a little halting. It's stunning.

Too sweet and too pretty Beale Street may be, but it has many fine moments and is clearly a labor of love by all concerned. It also left me moved.

If Beale Street Could Talk, 119 mins., debuted at Toronto, included in nine other festivals including New York. It opened in the US limited 14 Dec. 2018, wider on Christmas Day. Metascore 86.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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