Friday 15 February 2019

Film of the week: If Beale Street Could Talk is a stylish and elegant depiction of racial prejudice in 70s America still rings true today

This stylish and elegant depiction of racial prejudice in 70s America still rings true today, says Paul Whittington

KiKi Layne and Stephan James have to battle racial barriers in If Beale Street Could Talk
KiKi Layne and Stephan James have to battle racial barriers in If Beale Street Could Talk

Paul Whittington

The issue of race has been front and centre in American cinema of late, but the movies tackling it have often been conversion vehicles with heartfelt agendas, more earnest than artful. Not in the case of Barry Jenkins, however.

His Oscar-winning 2016 drama Moonlight was a dense, complex, many-layered creation, which succeeded in achieving multiple aims: it told the semi-autobiographical story of a young gay black man's struggle to come to terms with his sexuality in the macho environs of a Florida project, but did so using the visual palette of a nouvelle vague art-house movie.

In addition, it carefully subverted all the ghetto stereotypes we've been force-fed for decades: the kindest person in the film was a black drug dealer, played by Mahershala Ali.

It was the most important film released in America that year, and deserved all the praise heaped on it. The question was, would Jenkins be able to sustain that level of excellence? Remarkably, he has.

If Beale Street Could Talk is based on a novel by James Baldwin, and adheres closely to its source. But while paying due homage to the problems endured by African-Americans in the 1970s, it subtly connects them to contemporary experience to quietly demonstrate how little has changed. In New York City in the early 70s, things are going pretty well for 19-year-old black woman Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne). She's working at the perfume counter of a big department store in a front-of-house role no black woman has previously occupied, and is head over heels in love with Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), a talented and enigmatic young man.

He's a sculptor, and they have high hopes of making a decent life for themselves in Manhattan, but the little matter of skin pigment will thwart them at every turn. When Tish gets pregnant, their families react very differently. Her mother, Sharon (Regina King) and father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), while understandably not over the moon, quickly adapt to this new reality and are supportive. But Fonny's fearsome mom (Aunjanue Ellis) is a holy roller, thinks Tish isn't good enough for her son, and throws the toys out of the pram.

In a magnificently busy scene, all hell breaks loose when the two families convene to discuss Tish's pregnancy: some of the dialogue (most of it Baldwin's) is very funny, but the humour dissipates when Fonny's seemingly easy-going dad rounds on his wife and hits her. In this film, nothing is simple, and things are about to get worse.

When Tish is sexually harassed by a white man in a convenience store, Fonny arrives and knocks him down. But a policeman called Hayward (Finn Wittrock) is watching, addresses Fonny as "boy", and moves him to the top of his sh*t list. Fonny is soon bound for prison and Tish and the two families must pull together to find a way of proving his innocence.

The hard realities of a society where blackness is proof of criminal guilt is juxtaposed in Jenkins' film with the elegiac passion of Tish and Fonny's love. They're devoted to each other, and would live forever in a bubble of mutual contentment if racial politics did not constantly intrude. The simplest of tasks are complicated by colour: when the couple go looking for an apartment together, they're turned down time and again until a kindly Jewish landlord (Dave Franco) acknowledges, with a smile, their common humanity.

The hatred and suspicion Tish constantly encounters as she works to free her man seems to surprise her: perhaps her good family has insulated her from a world whose ugliness she only now fully understands. At one point, the couple are visited by an old friend of Fonny's, who's spent time in jail. Calmly, affably, he tells them that if you're black, it doesn't matter if you're innocent or guilty: the system is rigged against you.

The story sounds grim and sometimes is, but Jenkins tells it beautifully, using light and colour to juxtapose the couple's love with the wider institutional hatreds. Soft browns and greens evoke the mood of 70s New York, and the film effortlessly flicks back and forth in time. A stunning-looking film, its stylistic elegance only emphasises its sombre underlying message.

Blackness was a crime in 1970s America: sadly, one could argue that it still is.

If Beale Street Could Talk (15A, 119mins) - 5 stars

Films coming soon...

Instant Family (Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer); Happy Death Day 2U (Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard); A Private War (Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan); The Kid Who Would Be King (Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart).

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Irish Independent

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