Saturday, December 29, 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk

Author James Baldwin, 1970

James Baldwin, 1985

James Baldwin with other civil rights activists, 1963

Director Barry Jenkins

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK                        B+                  
USA  (119 mi)  2018  d:  Barry Jenkins

Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York.  Beale Street is our legacy.
―James Baldwin, epigraph from If Beale Street Could Talk, 1974

Even earlier than the success of 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins had been busy at work for four or five years adapting a James Baldwin novel from 1974, beginning in December 2013 spending 10 days in Brussels writing the screenplay for Moonlight, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, then taking a train to Berlin where he wrote an adaptation of the Baldwin novel, not having rights to either work at the time, but eventually securing permission for both, playing a DVD of his earlier film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) for Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s sister and executor of the James Baldwin estate along with her daughter Aisha Karefa-Smart, a film featuring two characters wandering the city of San Francisco and talking through their lives after a one-night stand, a quirky, funny, and independent black love story, both approving the idea they had found the right filmmaker.  Following the novel, which is an ode to love that also comes across like a doomed fairy tale, or a blues lament, the story is set in Harlem in the early 1970’s following a 19-year old black woman Tish, the saintly and overtly innocent KiKi Layne, who seeks to clear the name of her 22-year old boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James), a sculpture artist who is wrongly convicted of rape and sent to rot in prison, unable to prove his innocence before the birth of their child.  Rather than feel downbeat and defeated, they cling to hope, where there is a palpable uplifting spirit guiding this family even as they struggle against all odds.  In essence it’s an innocent portrait of black love, surrounded by darkly conspiring forces that are anything but innocent, where the struggle to maintain one’s composure and dignity is tested throughout, like the unending trials and tribulations of Job, with no easy resolution at the end.  The American criminal justice system is filled with cases where blacks are wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit, used like pawns as political fodder for law and order candidates who vow to clean up the streets, which means arresting more black kids and filling up the jails, as if the streets are somehow safer by overcrowding the prison cells with black youth whose childhood and young lives are literally stolen from them, habitually blamed for crimes they did not commit, which means the real criminals are still out there still wreaking havoc.  While this is the backdrop of the film, showing how easily young black lives are destroyed by lengthy periods of incarceration, where their real crime is poverty, as their families don’t have the money to hire lawyers or raise bail to get them out, so they’re imprisoned even while awaiting trial, serving a lengthy sentence where there is no presumption of innocence.  According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “70 percent of people in local jails are not convicted of any crime,” instead their primary infraction is that they are poor and powerless.  Often what happens is these young men, who have done no wrong, eventually plead to lesser crimes than what they’re originally charged with simply to get out of jail, as otherwise they’re stuck in there seemingly forever, awaiting a justice that never comes.  First and foremost this is a touching love story, an idyllic Romeo and Juliet caught in the wrong time and place, where the point of the film is to humanize those affected, including their families and friends, creating empathy for others like them, showing how pervasive and deeply rooted this problem is in America, where there is no justice for racially motivated police crimes that specifically target black youth, so routinely connecting them to random crimes that otherwise would be difficult to solve, so they are easy pickings, made to serve prison sentences for crimes many of them never committed, rigging the system, where falsifying evidence, testimony, and fabricating crimes is a corrupt police practice that hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years.   

Not cut from the same cloth as his other films, as this is less accessible and more artistically abstract, and while drop dead beautiful, shot by his regular cinematographer James Laxton, this aesthetic may actually overemphasize mood and art design over text and social realism, where the authoritative voice of James Baldwin is there, but the continual use of slow-motion, lengthy inner narration, intoxicating visuals, enhanced musical moods, and often over-the-top melodrama creates a different universe overshadowing the story, as it’s intentionally painting an impressionistic montage throughout, where the artistic techniques are extreme and overly obvious, with nods to the lush visualization of Wong Kar-wai, where the jazzy musical score from Nicholas Britell is a nice contrast, sounding like Terence Blanchard in Spike Lee films, with a counterpoint using R & B songs from the era like Al Green, Nina Simone, and just a touch of John Coltrane, while also using a series of giant Sirkian close-ups that heighten the overall sense of artificiality, which at least some of the time has the effect of undermining the film.  In too many instances the tone is simply off, not really in keeping with the worldly sense Baldwin provides, as Jenkins gets carried away with providing additional texture that is at the heart of Baldwin’s effusively descriptive prose, but novels create time and space, allowing readers to contemplate what they’re reading, while film compresses the whole into smaller individualized pieces, which is just too showy here, choppily edited, altering the fluidity of the page, feeling more manipulative than organic, and that comes from the choices Jenkins is making in how to best express this material.  It’s unfortunate because this portrait of criminal injustice is among the strongest and most socially conscious subjects in any Jenkins film, or any other film out there at the moment, where it couldn’t be more relevant, but the seething anger that is Baldwin’s voice is drowned out by artificial techniques that are not just unnecessary, but get in the way, altering and minimizing the dramatic mood established by the author, becoming something else altogether, saturated in color and technique, overstylized, using the power of cinema to overwhelm, and while it’s beautiful to look at, it lacks the sense of urgency from the original text, which is at the heart of all of Baldwin’s works, which is why we all read him growing up, as few others could transport us to such an intensely compelling universe.  Baldwin himself was under siege when he wrote this novel, criticized by the Black Panthers, specifically Eldridge Cleaver in Soul On Ice, for being too effeminate, damning him for being gay, preferring the fiercely emboldened writings of Richard Wright, pitting the two against each other, undercutting Baldwin’s significance within his own black community, despite an irrefutable record and lifelong career of standing on the front lines protesting against racial abuse.  Baldwin lived most of his life after the age of 24 in Paris, disillusioned by the racism and homophobia so rampant in America, making him one of America’s most important exile writers, and one of its most thoughtful critics, as evidenced by Raoul Peck’s 2017 Top Ten List #3 I Am Not Your Negro.  In a review of the book from The New York Times in 1974 ("If Beale Street Could Talk"), author Joyce Carol Oates wrote:         

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is Baldwin’s 13th book and it might have been written, if not revised for publication, in the 1950’s.  Its suffering, bewildered people, trapped in what is referred to as the “garbage dump” of New York City―blacks constantly at the mercy of whites―have not even the psychological benefit of the Black Power and other radical movements to sustain them.  Though their story should seem dated, it does not.  And the peculiar fact of their being so politically helpless seems to have strengthened, in Baldwin’s imagination at least, the deep, powerful bonds of emotion between them.  “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a quite moving and very traditional celebration of love.  It affirms not only love between a man and a woman, but love of a type that is dealt with only rarely in contemporary fiction―that between members of a family, which may involve extremes of sacrifice…

If Beale Street Could Talk” is a moving, painful story.  It is so vividly human and so obviously based upon reality, that it strikes us as timeless―an art that has not the slightest need of esthetic tricks, and even less need of fashionable apocalyptic excesses.

It’s what Oates says in the end that matters most in this film adaptation, “not the slightest need of aesthetic tricks,” which Jenkins does not take to heart, so while this might be his most gorgeously sublime work, it is also his most flawed.  Told out of time in an ever increasing series of flashbacks, one must affirm that some of the essential scenes are positively riveting, including how the family is initially informed about Tish’s pregnancy, announcing it first to her own family, and then to Fonny’s (who’s already in jail), which erupts into a free-for all of surreal comic hilarity, turning into a knockdown Saturday night brawl, as the two families have hugely differing views on the matter.  Regina King is Tish’s mom, warmhearted and loving throughout, willing to do anything for her daughter, even go that extra mile, which includes a trip to Puerto Rico in search of the women claiming Fonny raped her, picking him out of a line-up, which is another beautifully rendered moment, as both women are victimized by the same circumstances, but in different ways, as blacks and browns are pitted against each other by a white racist system that orchestrates the ruse.  Both women demonstrate an innate sense of utter futility, demoralized by the stench of debasement that might stain and define them forever.  Similarly, the scene between the two fathers is equally intense, Tish’s father (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s (Michael Beach), each openly acknowledging no chance in hell of getting the money they need to extricate their children out of a hopeless situation, relying upon petty thievery just to stay even, where it’s a blistering portrait of black masculinity.  Mirroring that scene is one between Fonny and an old childhood friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), recently released from prison, where there’s not an ounce of artificiality here, describing the hell he went through and the abuses he suffered as an incarcerated black man after being falsely accused of stealing a car (though he can’t even drive), set to the background music of Miles Davis Blue in Green, Blue in Green by. Miles Davis - YouTube (5:37), an achingly sad expression of loneliness, perfectly capturing a distorted criminal justice system that sends falsely accused black men to jail as a matter of routine, where “they can do with you whatever they want.  What.  Ever. They want,” with no recourse except to serve your time, as the white man has you “by the balls,” with Daniel coming to the conclusion that the white man may as well be the devil for what they put black people through every day, intentionally destroying young black lives.  There are accompanying black and white historic still shots of men on chain gangs working in the fields, with white overseers armed with rifles on horseback, reminding audiences just how long this has been going on.  But there are also hopeful scenes, even in the dim gloom of night, including an impressive shot of Fonny working on a sculpture, cigarette in hand, smoke slowly rising, all saturated in a golden hue, giving it the texture of an illusory dream, the kind of thought that might get him through the day while spending solitary hours in confinement.  When he and Tish were looking for a place to live, perhaps unsurprisingly no one would rent to them, like a Joseph and Mary couple in Harlem, growing ever more desperate, eventually taken to a vacant industrial warehouse, where they have to imagine what might exist in a lifeless place like this, yet it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film, shown by a decent young Jewish landlord (Dave Franco) wearing a yarmulke.  When Fonny turns to inquire why he’d rent to them when nobody else in the neighborhood would, he simply answers, “I am a mother’s son,” preferring to rent his buildings to couples that are actually in love.  It’s the most hopeful counterpart to the deluge of anguish and pain that defines this picture, beautifully rendered as a whole, like an exquisite poem reaching out from the darkness, calling from the heart.   

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Director Alfonso Cuarón with Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez

Libo surrounded by Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira and Marco Graf

Director Alfonso Cuarón at Venice

Director Alfonso Cuarón with actress Yalitza Aparicio

Actress Yalitza Aparicio

Director Alfonso Cuarón with actresses Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira

Nancy García García, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira

ROMA            B                    
Mexico  USA  (135 mi)  2018  ‘Scope  d:  Alfonso Cuarón

Winner of the 1st place Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and among the most highly acclaimed films of the year, sitting at the top of many of the best of the year lists, yet underwhelming, this wildly overpraised film is noted for being shot by the director himself using a state-of-the-art 65mm black and white digital camera that is being hailed for its widescreen compositions and sweeping camera movements, yet the digital revolution has nothing on the immaculate look of 35mm film, which was the standard look in the industry prior to the turn of the century, so viewers shouldn’t get too excited, as we’re still not achieving what was considered ordinary in the 1990’s, where this is still a step down from that.  Nonetheless this film is receiving industry hype about the quality of the precise look of the film, yet it’s distributed by Netflix, shown in living room televisions while also distributed in a few theaters, where the theater experience is being touted as a better look.  This exact same argument was being raised at the director’s previous film, Gravity – 3D (2013), with industry insiders pushing the benefits of watching the film in 3D or at IMAX, all designed to elevate the ticket prices.  Why should we not be surprised?  A pale comparison to other autobiographical films like Fellini’s I VITELLONI (1953), Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), or even the raucous misadventures of teenage youth in George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), the film itself is a memory piece, a Proustian autobiographical journey similar to Manoel de Oliveira’s PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD (2001), with both examining their privileged, aristocratic roots, having been raised by servants, which is an altogether different experience than what most people contend with, as children tend to cling to their caretakers, actually developing a closer relationship to them than their own parents who are seen as more distant and aloof.  So really this is a tribute to the indigenous Mixtec servant Cleo from Oaxaca that came to Mexico City to take care of Cuarón as a child, played by Yalitza Aparicio, a nonprofessional who is a primary schoolteacher living in a rural one-roomed home with her family in real life, one of the two housekeepers living on the premises.  While this fits the politically correct image that Hollywood is trying to project, promoting stories about women, especially since indigenous history has been overlooked and devalued in cinema, but this fails to get underneath the skin of her character, lacking any real depth and psychological insight, learning little about her, seeming like a lost opportunity, where she’s more of a blank canvas that others project their feelings onto, creating a guilt-heavy depiction that weighs in the viewer’s minds, allowing the film to unravel as a series of incidents or vignettes, like a succession of memories, using a sophisticated sound design that is everpresent.  What’s unique is that Cuarón would have been one of the young children, yet the film is seen through the eyes of Cleo, where it’s hard to imagine a child’s memories coinciding with those of a young adult at the time, as identity, class, family background, personal perspective and pertinent details are missing, so it’s more about imagining what it must have been like for the indigenous family maid, making this more of an idealized revisionist history, no doubt suggesting she meant more than she was ever shown at the time. 

Told with a detached eye, much of it emotionally inert, the film simply observes while withholding judgment, feeling more like an outsider’s view, as the kids don’t really understand what’s going on with the parents, who are on the verge of splitting up, as much of this is simply beyond their grasp, occurring offscreen, without any dramatic buildup.  Set in the early 1970’s, Colonia Roma is the neighborhood in Mexico City where the film takes place, located in the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City just west of the city’s historic center.  A throwback to the Italian neorealist filmmakers of Rossellini and De Sica, Cuarón was looking for a more naturalistic style, using a technique advocated by British socialist filmmaker Ken Loach, which is withholding a script from cast members until the morning of the shoot, then issuing contradictory instructions to different actors of what to expect so they would elicit genuine surprise on camera.  The result is less than stellar acting performances, as all are underdeveloped, none really carrying the picture, though Aparicio as a nanny is immensely appealing as she gently and so easily shows affection for the children, yet throughout she is scolded and belittled, treated like a second class citizen, where her domestic help services are taken for granted.  Curiously, the men in the film are nonexistent, and when they make an appearance we discover they are cheaters and pretenders behind the scenes, and moral cowards when it matters.  The women, on the other hand, are the backbone of the family, from the nervously anxious mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her feckless husband who is never there, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), both working professionals, to the dependable grandmother Teresa (Verónica García), and the two indigenous housemaids, Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García, who in real life is best friends with Yalitza Aparicio).  Add to that four spoiled and bratty young children in their care (the smallest one being Cuarón as a child, played by Marco Graf) who don’t listen and are used to doing pretty much whatever they want without any consequences.  The servants daily lives are constantly on display along with morning routines, waking the children up each morning, then tucking them in at night, one by one turning off the lights in each room, seen doing the household chores, like laundry or scrubbing the floors, cleaning the dishes, shopping for groceries, serving meals or attending to guests, while simultaneously taking care of the children as surrogate mothers, where they are always asked to do more than they can possibly do, yet they are continually held to this seemingly impossible standard, after all they’re the hired help living lives of servitude.  Sofia angrily loses her patience with them from time to time, but that’s more reflective of her own deteriorating outlook, as she has a good for nothing husband who is completely unreliable.  Interestingly, offering a bit of comic relief, the car is meant to reflect the status of the man of the house, and with no man around Sofia is forever doing some serious fender bender damage to that car.  Both Cleo and Adela have boyfriends, going on double dates at the movies, where she and her date Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) sneak out into a hotel room where he nakedly shows off his snazzy martial arts moves like sexual foreplay before moving into bed with her.    

As it happens, Cleo becomes pregnant, confirmed by a visit to a doctor at the hospital, but when she pays a visit to Fermín to tell him the news, he’s among dozens of others on a soccer field doing synchronized martial artist exercises, as if preparing for the Olympics, getting himself worked up in a lather, furiously rebuking her in no uncertain terms, more like a threat, grotesquely dismissing her as nothing but a servant, of no value to him.  As if mirroring that dismissive attitude, the Mexican government has not come to grips with a turbulent era of the 70’s with the Halconazo and the Dirty War (Mexico), refusing to acknowledge this event as part of its own history.  While there were no military dictatorships in Mexico like Argentina or Chile, there was an intense period of repression and censorship, with clandestine paramilitary operations that killed with impunity, destroying all records of their actions, so what they did is still not officially recognized.  The film includes a scene of a massive student demonstration that was suppressed by the Halconazo, or CIA trained Mexican soldiers dressed in civilian clothing that fired upon the students, chasing them down in stores and hospitals, shooting them dead in cold blood in front of stunned witnesses, one of whom is Cleo, attempting to buy a baby crib at a furniture store with Teresa, shocked to discover Fermín is one of the hired assassins pointing a gun directly at her, which leads to her water breaking.  About 120 students were killed in that event as police stood idly by and watched, while at the time the government claimed the attackers were students to discredit their movement.  By bringing this event to the world stage, this film may actually force the government to officially recognize what happened.  A horrendous traffic jam follows the tragedy, seemingly taking forever to get Cleo to the hospital, where the delivery scene, with all the accompanying chaos from the traumatic events, is one of horror and devastation, like something on the front lines of a war zone, shocking in the blasé manner in which this is depicted, as there’s simply no time to process all that transpires.  By the time Cleo returns home, rather than dwell on the unspoken tragedy, Sofia decides to take the kids to the ocean on a road trip to Veracruz, all voting to bring Cleo along, eager to maker her feel like she’s part of the family, though she’s hesitant at first, not knowing how to swim.  Sofia’s real purpose is to inform the kids and openly discuss her impending divorce, as Antonio will be removing his things from the home while they’re away.  Afterwards, the kids sadly eat ice cream after dinner, downbeat and quiet, with all the joy lifted right out of them, while juxtaposed in the same shot is a party sequence from a festive wedding celebration.  By the next day, however, too impatient to wait to check in at a motel, they make a mad dash for the water the moment they set eyes upon it, with the kids, of course, refusing to listen to instructions to stay near the shoreline, plunging headfirst into the waves, with two of them pulled further and further out to sea.  Without a moment to think, in the midst of utter ocean turbulence, Cleo simply reacts to the circumstances, herself heading further and further out to sea to find them, fighting the relentless power of the waves, summoning every last reservoir of strength to rescue them both, all crumpled on the beach afterwards, like a human sculpture of collective relief.  By the time they get home, with all the books and bookcases gone, there’s suddenly more room that wasn’t there before, and surprisingly the kids all have different rooms, so it’s like a new frontier awaits them, where the final held shot is a real knockout.  The film is dedicated to Libo, the real life Cleo, whose name is Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who is still very much alive.  Remembering the young Cuarón, she says simply, “He just didn’t behave.”