29 Days of Romance, Review #7: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

 

Directed by: Barry Jenkins. Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King. Runtime: 1h 59 min. Released: December 25, 2018.

The prologue to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from a 1974 novel by James Baldwin, set up my expectations for the film well. “Beale Street is a street in New Orleans where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America is born on Beale Street…” it reads. “Beale Street is our legacy. Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader [viewer] to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.”

This is a great introduction to the story and set up my expectations that the film is more about the character’s experiences, and the black experience, than anything else. It’s a love story surviving through hate, about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James). Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and Tish is pregnant with his baby, and Tish and her family try to prove his innocence.

Wrongful conviction movies are one of my favourite kind-of films and while that’s going on in Beale Street, the film takes a different kind-of approach to it. Through the film, it accurately portrays that it is an unjust system and there’s no winning against it. More importantly, it depicts the world as being unjust. The legal parts of the film where the characters try and prove Fonny’s innocence are solid but few and far between. That’s because it’s about the love story between Tish and Fonny.

This part of the film is beautiful. The chemistry between them shines through and these are strong performances from KiKi Layne and Stephan James that carry the film adequately. They’re star-making performances, but Stephan James also seems like he could be a strong character actor, too, but he’s held his own as the lead role, like when he starred as Jesse Owens in the 2016 film Race. Here, both of the starring performances are quiet and reserved, and the drama here is never loud, either.

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Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk. (IMDb)

Layne’s voice-over narration that adds context to the character’s experience is a highlight throughout the film. The narration is consistently lovely and her voice is so soft that it’s really endearing. The performances all feel quiet throughout, and others in the cast shine, too, especially Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers. She won an Oscar for the performance and it’s deserved, in two key scenes, when she fights for Fonny near the end of the film and close to the very beginning when the family gathers Fonny’s family and they tell them that Tish is pregnant. This scene is also the strongest in terms of dialogue and is one of the only times that the drama is explosive and close to shouting. It’s fair to say the film peaks for me in this scene because there’s so much power in the cast’s words in this scene. One more thing about Regina King, she makes the best of her screen time, and I thought Beale Street only got better when King was on-screen.

Director Barry Jenkins brings a great vision to this beautiful, timeless story. The film isn’t always eventful because it’s very talky and just about humans loving each other, and it’s not often flashy. There’s almost always meaning and power in its dialogue. It made the experiences of these characters easily understandable, even though I could tell the significance of some scenes went over my head. I loved the meaning I found in the beating of the film’s drums and I’d love to read the novel. Speaking of drums, the score by Nicholas Britell and its use of jazz is stunning, never interfering with the story or overpowering the performances, only enhancing the experience.

Score: 80/100

 

 

Race (2016)

Released: February 19, 2016. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree. Runtime: 2 hr 14 min.

Taking on a dual meaning title, Race follows the awe-inspiring story of Jesse Owens gearing up towards his stint at the 1936 Olympics in a Germany under the start of the Hitler regime.

Stephan James (Selma) stars as the pride and joy of Ohio State, Jesse Owens, bringing charm to a legendary figure who wasn’t given enough credit for his achievements at the Olympics because of the time it happened.

Heck, it took him long enough to get the first theatrical film about Owens – about 80 years. Owens did have his own film back in 1984, however, in the form of a made-for-television production called The Jesse Owens Story. But are TV productions real movies? That’s debatable.

Anyway, James captures emotion of the time for a person of colour not having the rights of any white people. He’s great depicting the athleticism and astounding agility of the character. I enjoyed seeing the chemistry between him and Shanice Banton’s Ruth Solomon, as well.

He can take a stand by going to the Olympics in Germany and making a stand for the African American folks, as well as the severely repressed Jewish people, during a time that was just the start of Hitler’s regime.

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Stephan James as Jesse Owens doing the long jump. (Source

With all of its other focuses, this is still very much a sports film, as we’re brought through Owens’ training by star Larry Snyder, portrayed with utmost kindness by Jason Sudeikis.

The feature is also at its best when we go with Owens to the Olympics. This isn’t a spoiler if you know of Owens’ prestige. It’s rousing and inspiring cheering him on.

But the line between sport and politics blur so much that it takes away from Owens’ story at times. It’s like Owens’ story is just used as a frame for a story that is largely about the United States Olympic Committee and how they were able to convince the Germans to allow African Americans and Jews to compete.

Jeremy Irons’ Avery Brundage represents the interest to have Americans compete at the Olympic Games. William Hurt’s Jeremiah Mahoney represented the opposing opinion of boycotting the Olympics for the year – because of the intense segregation.

Joseph Goebbels is portrayed by Barnaby Metschurat. The character is just rather mean, but that’s expected for Goebbels. He’s the political heart on the side of the Germans, as the Minister of Propaganda at the time.

While promoting the Aryan race, he also suppresses documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (portrayed by Carice van Houten). He wishes her to make a film which reflects the views of the German government – while she has to stick it to the man and wants to focus on the success of Owens.

It’s frustrating, but that’s what the filmmakers go for – to frustrate the audience. And later in the film show that, even through so much glory, there will always be discrimination.

The story is almost drowned completely by the politics, and is often in danger of being a political drama.

But the scenes at the Olympics and the inspiring road there make up for it and while the film isn’t as great as Owens’ achievements, it would still deserve a bronze medal. That’s still a winner, right?

Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space, A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warrior) directs the races with precision and it makes the film entertaining in that respect. The cinematography is stellar in these scenes, the director of photography is Peter Levy who often works with Hopkins, and is still interesting during the more chatty sequences.

The best part of the film is especially James’ performance. He’s inspiring how he captures optimism through a dark time. Hopefully this kick-starts James’ career the same way 42, a sports biography about fellow race pioneer Jackie Robinson, did for Chadwick Boseman.

James depicts the athlete’s dedication to his coach realistically. The chemistry there really works – and captures how lovely the relationship between a coach and a mentor can be.

Score: 65/100