This Is a Movie Review: Barry Jenkins is as Sensitive and Empathetic as Ever with James Baldwin Adaptation ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

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CREDIT: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Bryan Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Longtime Friends Becoming Lovers and Their Families Yelling Awful Things at Each Other

Release Date: December 14, 2018 (Limited)

One of the strength of Barry Jenkins’ films is that they work much like how the human brain works. They process their stories from a clear beginning to end, but along the way they take detours, often expressionistic and dreamlike, because in their associative natures they have tendencies to temporarily disassociate. The narrative focus in If Beale Street Could Talk is on the effort to free Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) from jail after he has been (obviously and egregiously) falsely been accused of rape. We stay close with his family and pregnant girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) as the weeks tick by and they do whatever they possibly can for a young black man in 1970s America. Interspersed with this steady passage of time are flashes of Fonny and KiKi’s memories, hopes, and nightmares. The images in these moments are often idyllic and tranquil, but there is an undercurrent of imprisonment demonstrating that the worst of reality cannot be fully escaped as it infects our psyches.

If On Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, and Jenkins’ smooth hand ensures that Baldwin’s conception of Harlem is brought to tactile, contemporary life. Layne’s sweet, mischievous, and unapologetic narration; Nicholas Britell’s smooth score; and James Laxton’s crisp cinematography make for a sensuous feast that altogether works to achieve a remarkable feat of empathy generation. All films that are worth their weight put us in their characters’ headspaces and let us discover what they were all about, but Beale Street is a special case. Every moment is especially intimate and familial, and it is thus an honor to be invited in. Like most stories about false accusations and systemic discrimination, this one is frustrating to anyone who cares about justice, but amidst all that there is to be angry at, Jenkins somehow manages to achieve an odd sort of peace by the end. Everything is far from perfect, but the love between Tish and Fonny is real and worth celebrating.

If Beale Street Could Talk is Recommended If You Like: Moonlight, The Harlem Renaissance, Love & Basketball

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 People Who Love Each Other

This Is a Movie Review: I Am Not Your Negro

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This review was originally published on News Cult in 2017.

Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Raoul Peck

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for a Little More Explicitness Than the Title

Release Date: February 3, 2017 (Limited)

Nobody wants a documentary entitled I Am Not Your Negro to still be timeless in 2017, but here we are. The film is based on Remember This House, a manuscript by Harlem Renaissance writer James Baldwin that remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1987. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s words, because when you want a voice to expound upon the legacy and persistence of racism in America, Sam is your man.

With its mix of archival news footage, still photography, and other various media clips (old movies to represent the American myth, game shows to represent capitalism), I Am Not Your Negro is not your typical cinematic experience. It plays more like a museum exhibit with a visual component. But please do not let the edutainment implication that description might inspire scare you away. I just want to make sure you know what you are in for. This is a vibrant, exciting experience, different though it may be.

But I do not want to discount the educational value. The film places Baldwin squarely in the context of the civil rights movement. He was an important figure right alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but he seems to be shunted off to a different historical pocket, perhaps because of his status as an artist. I fear that tendency is a grave mistake, especially in today’s climate.

Finally, dear viewers, pay particular attention to the scenes from Baldwin’s appearance on a 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss shows up to challenge Baldwin’s perspective, and the resulting rhetorical scuffle is a powerful display of the importance of listening and insisting that voices be heard and ideals be put into action.

I Am Not Your Negro is Recommended If You Like: Staying Woke, the Harlem Renaissance, the Dulcet Tones of Samuel L. Jackson

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Artist-Activists