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Film Review: No Easy Ways Out On ‘Beale Street’

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Kevin Gosztola reviews “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature the night before the Oscars. He offers some commentary on why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences did not nominate the film for “Best Picture.”

The aesthetic of a Barry Jenkins film is rather poetic. Deliberate framing and lingering shots center the emotions of black characters. Frequently main characters look directly into the camera, baring their sadness or bittersweet joy. Their faces tell a story of perseverance and survival.

For the follow-up to his Oscar-winning film, “Moonlight,” Jenkins adapted James Baldwin’s novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which was set in Harlem in the early 1970s.

It revolves around a young black couple, Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne). When Fonny is accused of a rape he did not commit, Tish, who is pregnant, must fight to have him freed from jail before their son is born. She also must convince her family, as well as Fonny’s family, that she is capable of being a mother, since she is 19 years-old, unmarried, and it is far from certain Fonny will be released.

Jenkins opens the film with Tish visiting Fonny to tell him she is pregnant. She shares the news with her family. They celebrate and decide they should invite Fonny’s family to come over as well.

As the film progresses, Jenkins weaves in flashbacks that show us moments leading to when Fonny was arrested while the family, with a bit of assistance from a white lawyer (Finn Wittrock), do what they can to prove Fonny was setup by police.

Poverty worsened considerably for Harlem residents by the 1970s, but that barely impacted the racism of landlords. One of the flashback scenes features Fonny recounting how difficult it is to find an apartment. If they go together, it is not long before it is clear they will be the last to be considered. If Tish goes alone, she may fare better because the landlord will see this as a moment to proposition her.

Although Jenkins won an Oscar for “Best Picture” for “Moonlight,” “Beale Street” was not nominated. Voters were able to nominate up to ten films, yet there were only eight “Best Picture” nominees from 2018.

The lack of a nomination impacts whether a wide audience sees a critically acclaimed film like “Beale Street.” “Moonlight” grossed $27 million domestically. “Beale Street” has only grossed $13 million, and without a “Best Picture” nod, theatres are not renewing contracts for screening the film throughout the rest of February with other Oscar-nominated films.

Each individual film deserves judgment on its own merits, however, since “Green Book” was nominated for a “Best Picture” Oscar, it is worth pondering what likely made this film more appealing to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“Green Book” unfolds in the early 1960s and follows Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a gay black classical/jazz pianist, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian American bouncer who drives Shirley through the south and is his bodyguard. It was written by Vallelonga’s son and directed by Peter Farrelly. In essence, the narrative is one of friendship between a black and white man transcending racism.

Regardless of intention, the presence of Vallelonga as a white character gives the audience someone who can help Shirley absorb and parry the impacts of oppression. There are no characters to soften the unfolding injustice for Fonny and Tish in “Beale Street.”

In “Beale Street,” poverty and racism make black characters feel powerless to control their destiny, and even the white lawyer cannot perform some swell maneuver that will turn the film into the feel good picture of the year.

Black characters reveal how terrified they are of what white men can do to them, especially when they have full control over them in jail. Between sequences in the film, photographs depicting the violence of black life during the era appear on screen while Tish narrates. These characters do not have the money Shirley has in “Green Book” to help them manage the rawness of these experiences.

The rise of filmmakers like Jenkins, as well as Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay, finally give us unapologetic stories that offer us no easy ways to disassociate from the pain, resentment, and suffering of characters. We can either open ourselves to feelings of empathy, or we can close down our minds, like countless generations before us, which relegated black experiences to “race films” or omitted them entirely, preferring to only show them as butlers, maids, or bellhops, who serve white needs.

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