Tag Archives: Stephan James

TIFF18: If Beale Street Could Talk

If this movie review could talk it would say: wow. And also: thank you.

How is it possible that Barry Jenkins is making GOAT movies right out of the gate? Is he for real?

If Beale Street Could Talk is about a love story, interrupted. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) are young lovers and the world is theirs as they fall in love inside their bubble. He’s respectful, she’s adorable, they’re so in sync their clothes begin to match, the colours mirroring each other as they walk hand in hand in a highly-saturated stroll through the park, the perfect date that just happens to end at prison, where she drops him off. Alonzo is going away for rape – a crime he didn’t commit, not that the justice system particularly cares. Beale Street is both love story and tragedy at the same time.

The most powerful thing about this film, and indeed about James Baldwin’s original work, is how little shock we see from either family – and both families, and their community, rallies around them. And of course they’re upset, they’re devastated, and they should be angry and incredulous, but no one seems all that astonished that such a MV5BMjMxMWQ5MjctN2MwMC00ZGY1LWJkNWUtNmUwOWFmYzAyNWJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE4NTE0NjU@._V1_thing could happen, because of course they’ve seen it happen before. So they swing into action, because they know the drill. Though they have little money, they will fund-raise and do whatever it takes to work the case themselves because they know whatever lawyer’s appointed to them will be inadequate (though he’s actually not painted as a bad guy, interestingly), and that the system is rigged is against them. They aren’t wrong.

I said earlier that this was a love story, interrupted. Thanks to director Barry Jenkins’ genius, that’s true on more than one count. First, the literal one, where the two lovers are separated just as she’s discovering they’re pregnant and would have made a home together. Through flash backs we see their love story, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity, in its sweetness, but every scene is tainted by our knowledge of where it ends up. Jenkins obviously has a respect for the poetry of Baldwin’s prose. He uses it as a bridge between scenes, uniting flashbacks which almost seem dream-like with the harsh realities and razor-precision detail of their present day (1970s). The interruption is an opportunity for Jenkins to show how lyrically he can manipulate time as well as genre. Because for every pause he takes to explore a character and make note of some sweet detail, this story is also infused with a greater cry for social justice. This Beale Street could be any Beale Street. Alonzo could be any black man. And the system of oppression, which is not limited to crime and punishment, applies just as much today as it did then. This is a cry meant to be heard across generations.

James Laxton’s stunning cinematography helps establish not just breathtaking film, but black culture itself, the streets coming alive and vibrant under his lens. The way Jenkins plays with colour astonishes me, the virginal whites, the lust-drenched reds; somehow this movie is everything a movie can be. It’s everything. And this is only Jenkins’ third feature. The costumes are perfection. The set design is perfection. The way the camera talks to us, showing us where to linger, communicating hunger, or desperation, or separation. The emphasis is masterful but never gets in the way of itself.

Beale Street’s ensemble cast is the beating heart of this film, with James and Layne both claiming rights to future stardom. Their fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are terrific as well, but for me Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) was the real standout. She is fierce and unwavering. The scene in which she confronts Alonzo’s accuser is deeply affecting, and it’s because of King, of the layers of emotion playing out on her face. I couldn’t look away. Notably, I also thought the mother in The Hate U Give (played by Regina Hall) was the best part of the movie, so I’m not sure if black moms are having a moment, or if it’s Reginas specifically, but watch out, they’re coming. Jenkins puts together a cast that becomes the fabric of his film. There is no detail too small to have escaped his love and attention. This is one of the better adaptations I’ve ever seen on film, and possibly the best. It works on so many levels at once you don’t even see the train coming until it hits you. It’s hard to outdo yourself when your last film won Best Picture, but Barry Jenkins is a director not to be fucked with.

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Race

Jesse Owens deserved better.  Race is a movie that hits the points you’d expect but does it so mechanically that it has no momentum.  Rather than having the power of its Olympic sprinter protagonist, Race is soft and lumbering, like a darts competition at the local dive bar.

The only time Race really shines is during the one-on-one exchanges between Owens (Stephan James) and his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis).  Those conversations are funny, warm and real.  Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.  It’s too bad that the film didn’t put those interactions into the foreground as that would have made for a much more
enjoyable movie.

Perhaps the problem is there was simply too much ground to cover.  Race’s story follows Owens through the course of several years during the peak of his career.  We flip back and forth between Ohio, New York, Berlin, Nebraska, Michigan, Los Angeles, and probably more places that I’ve forgotten.  We hit the athletic highlights, like Owens setting three world records and tying a fourth in less than an hour in 1935, and Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games.  We touch on the hypocrisy of the United States’ threat to boycott those Berlin games at a time when racism and segregation were the status quo in the “land of the free”.  We gloss over the rest of Owens’ life by way of end titles and some nice photographs of Owens and family at various stages of his life.

There is a good movie in here somewhere but the plodding delivery sinks it (and the important-sounding score doesn’t help matters).  Race seems to want to be a message movie highlighting the aforementioned hypjesse-owensocrisy by showing us the second-class citizenship of Owens even when he’s America’s hero.  If that was the aim, Race falls well short.  Painting Hitler and the Nazis as the bad guys is easy, and Race goes that route.  But the real story is more damning and I wish Race had told it as it happened.  At a political rally in October 1936, relatively soon after his triumphant return to the U.S. with four gold medals in hand, Owens said,  “Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President….but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because people said, he was too busy.”  Hitler reportedly shook Owens’ hand after his victories, while Franklin Delano Roosevelt couldn’t find the time to send Owens a congratulatory telegram.

The President’s indifference to Owens presumably lines up with the attitudes of white America at the time.  That may explain why Owens’ life after 1936 was a difficult one.  His amateur status was revoked when he tried to make some endorsement money from his Olympic success, and after loRACEsing his amateur status he was reduced to racing against horses for show.  Later, Owens got by as a dry cleaner and gas station attendant (though “got by” may be generous as he declared bankruptcy and was prosecuted for tax evasion).  All in all, it’s a very sad statement.  Today, Owens is rightfully regarded as a legend but it seems that during his lifetime he was not treated like one, to say the least.  Race hints at that fate but doesn’t focus on it, and that’s a shame.

That’s probably the biggest reason that Race seems like an opportunity missed.  Coach Snyder would have called it a natural that lacks the work ethic required to be truly great. For its half-hearted effort, Race gets a score of five medals out of ten.

Selma

I know who Martin Luther King was. But this movie made me realize how little I know about what he went through as a leader in the civil rights movement, and it was just a tiny sample of what must have gone on throughout the 1960s (and beyond). It made me want to learn more and I think that is an important accomplishment. It has now been 50 years since the events in the movie actually took place, and I think the horrors that went on need to be remembered so we can try to learn from them (because we do still have a lot to learn). All of this is in the background. This movie would be notable for that alone, and it is hard to separate out the fact that what we are seeing actually happened, which I have been trying to do so I can then judge Selma as a movie and not just as something that needs to be seen as a record of important events.

The events in this movie are horrific. It is difficult to imagine that any of them could ever have happened, but then you remember that things like this still DO happen, that for some reason the USA still can’t or won’t indict cops who kill black people (and it is not just a US problem, the recent incidents just happened to take place there). And still that is only a small part of the big picture, because it is not just “white, black and other”. There are lots of concurrent struggles for equality going on, still, with no resolution in sight. We have made some progress but not nearly enough (and as a straight white male what I would consider enough may not even actually be enough, which makes it even clearer that 50 years later we still aren’t close to achieving real equality).

I would not likely have thought about any of this today if I hadn’t watched Selma, and it goes to show again that regardless of how well this movie was made, I am glad I saw it.  But here’s the thing: this movie is incredibly good. David Oyelowo IS Martin Luther King. He is phenomenal. He would have carried this by himself but he does not need to. Everyone involved is intent on making this movie the best picture of the year. Their love and respect for the subject matter drew me in from the very start. I do not think this movie could be any better. Because of the subject matter I cannot promise that you will be entertained but I can promise that you will be moved.

Ten out of ten. See it.