Outside of cinephile circles, filmmaker Barry Jenkins is perhaps best known for his role in arguably the greatest debacle in the history of the Academy Awards. On February 26th, 2017, La La Land was mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner, only for it then to be revealed that Jenkins’ Moonlight was the actual winner.
There’s a certain irony to the award being momentarily given to La La Land, a movie about Jazz that seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the essence of Jazz, given Jenkins’ followup to his Oscar winner takes its name from the Memphis street that played a pivotal role in the formation of America’s true art form. La La Land’s misunderstanding of Jazz is best illustrated in a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s pianist behaves like a petulant child when asked to play Christmas carols at the restaurant where he’s employed to entertain diners. Any Jazz musician worth their salt would jump at the challenge of stamping their own trademark on a Christmas standard, and most of the greats recorded at least one seasonal album during their careers. Jazz is the art of taking something that exists and making it your own, finding beauty in the mundane and the miserable.
Fonny (Stephan James), the young African-American protagonist of Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, isn’t a Jazz musician - he’s a sculptor - but he understands Jazz a lot more than Gosling’s petulant piano man. Fonny takes misshapen lumps of wood and turns them into artworks, chiselling away at discarded matter to discover the beauty within. A friend mocks his work - he doesn’t understand it, and frankly neither do I, but I understand Fonny’s motives, and so does Jenkins. In the basement of the Harlem home of his girlfriend Tish’s (KiKi Layne) family, Fonny finds a release from the pressure of his daily existence. In one lovingly filmed scene, Fonny steps back and admires a piece he’s crafted. To those of us who aren’t familiar with abstract sculpting, it just looks like a misshapen lump of wood. It may not make sense to us, but it makes sense to Fonny, and ultimately that’s all that matters.
Fonny and Tish’s world is turned upside down when, not long after the latter reveals she is carrying their child, the former is arrested, accused of the rape of a Puerto Rican immigrant. The pair use geography to prove Fonny’s innocence - he was arrested in an area of New York he couldn’t possibly have gotten to at that time if he had been involved in the assault - but nobody wants to listen to reason from two young black kids in ‘70s New York. With Fonny behind bars awaiting trial, Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) embark on a crusade to have his name cleared.
The premise may make If Beale Street Could Talk sound like a legal drama, but it’s actually much more of a romance. In fact, it’s one of the most romantic movies to come out of American cinema in quite some time. Jenkins devotes the bulk of his film to Fonny and Tish in the weeks leading up to the former’s arrest, his camera simply hanging out with them as they bask in each other’s presence, and he really sells the sense that these two people belong together.
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The more we see of the happiness Fonny and Tish bring one another, the more ominous the film becomes, reflected in Nicholas Brittell’s stunning Jazz influenced score, which like Bernard Herrmann’s work on Taxi Driver, takes the soothing warmth of Jazz and occasionally corrupts it with a brooding undercurrent. The suggestion is that moments of beauty should be savoured, for darkness is never far away.
There are few things more affecting in movies than moments of human kindness. In a time when doing so took even more bravery than today, three white people come to the aid of Fonny and Tish in their own ways - a young lawyer (Finn Wittrock) who takes a personal interest in Fonny’s case, a young landlord who rents out a loft to the couple when nobody else would, and an elderly Eastern European woman who intervenes when a cop (Ed Skrein) attempts to arrest Fonny for defending his girlfriend from an assault - but they never feel like ‘white saviour’ archetypes, they’re simply good people doing the right thing when so few others will. Notably, all three are coded as Jewish, and in the case of the latter, you wonder if maybe she’s alive because somebody stood between her and a man in uniform three decades earlier. Jews played a significant role in the birth of Jazz too - Louis Armstrong credited his life and career to the family of Lithuanian Jews who took him in as a child, and he wore a Star of David around his neck throughout his life in recognition - and like African-Americans, they know that no matter how bright today is, darkness is never far away.
If Beale Street Could Talk is about people stuck in a horrific situation, but never feeling sorry for themselves, carrying hope in their hearts and finding beauty wherever they can. That’s the essence of Jazz. It’s dark now, but brightness is never far away.
If Beale Street Could Talk - 4 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Barry Jenkins; Starring:KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco
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Here We Are: An Interview With David Bellarosa David Bellarosa is a filmmaker from New Jersey currently living in Austin, Texas. His first feature film, Here We Are, is a terrific coming of age story about a writer that finds himself seemingly trapped, broke, and stuck in Austin. Unlike typical slacker films, this is one of hope.REVIEW: "The Wild Pear Tree" Writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan follows up his 2014 Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep with another lengthy drama set in rural Turkey. And as with his previous film, The Wild Pear Tree gives us a protagonist who considers himself the intellectual and moral superior of the residents of a town he wishes to “drop an atom bomb on.”Mimi Vang Olsen: Pet Portraitist Within two minutes, I knew I wanted to write about Mimi Vang Olsen: Pet Portraitist. It’s a wonderful film - just over a half hour long - that chronicles the last West Village painter with her own storefront as she enters the lives of several eccentric clients and immortalizes their pets. How They Got Over: An Interview With Robert Clem Robert Clem’s How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and the Road to Rock and Roll shows how black quartets began traveling in the 1920s as radio and records became popular. Young black men with few ways to escape poverty saw music as a way out, traveling the “chittlin’ circuit” of churches, schools and small auditoriums across the South. Beginning with spirituals sung in an acapella “jubilee’ style, playing to all-black audiences, these groups developed over time a harder, often blues-influenced style with guitars, drums, organ and piano, playing at concert halls like the Apollo Theatre and large auditoriums across the country. REVIEW: "Glass" When M. Night Shyamalan followed up his breakout 1999 hit The Sixth Sense with 2000’s Unbreakable, audiences were largely unsure what to make of this slow-burning movie about finding strength in survival. Arriving just before 9/11 and the rise of the superhero movie, Unbreakable was a film ahead of its time, predicting as it did with its villain - Samuel L. Jackson’s embittered, wheelchair bound Mister Glass - the threat that would rise in the early 21st century from entitled men obsessed with books (be they comics or religious texts) and striking out at a world they believe has left them behind.
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