The Second Conditional Blues
There are doubtless many distinguished people who won their first Oscar at the second attempt (it's just that search engine technology isn't quite at the point of being able to identify them as easily as all that, and I'm too lazy to do the research). Barry Jenkins' last movie, however, holds the unique distinction of winning an Oscar at the second attempt within the same ceremony – I speak, of course, of Moonlight, which was famously the subject of a stewards' enquiry at the 2017 Academy Awards, eventually triumphing over La La Land.
I was one of those people who thought that while there was nothing wrong with Moonlight, and the film did indeed have much to commend and distinguish it, it was still a less worthy and magical winner than Damien Chazelle's extraordinary reinvention of the musical would have been. But here we are two years on, and the boot is well and truly for the gander, as I now find myself marvelling that Jenkins' new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, has not been more acclaimed by the academy, for this is one of the exceptional films of the year so far.
This is one of those films that tells its story largely out of chronological sequence, which if nothing else makes it hard to figure out what is and isn't a spoiler in it. Hey ho. At its heart is the relationship between two young African-American people, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). They have grown up together and basically been lifelong sweethearts. One night Tish is hassled by a white stranger, and in defending her Fonny finds he has antagonised a racist street cop. Shortly after he is arrested for a crime it would have been impossible for him to commit.
Both families start to work towards getting him released, but then there is more news: Tish is pregnant with Fonny's child. This only serves to exacerbate existing tensions between the families, and a drinks party organised to celebrate the good news ends up concluding spectacularly badly, largely due to the inflexible religious beliefs of Fonny's mother (Aunjanue Ellis, who manages to make a big impression in her single scene). The struggle to clear Fonny's name continues regardless, with everyone involved finding themselves pushed to their limits by the innate injustice of the system.
Written down like that there is perhaps something of the soap opera about the central premise of If Beale Street Could Talk – there is, as I have suggested, that one big meaty scene of in-laws coming together and really not getting on, which is the sort of thing the writers of EastEnders or whatever really love to include. Certainly the film features many fine actors, most of them not very well known, really getting their teeth into good parts.
However, what the film is about is suggested by the title, which is so obliquely allusive that they have to include a caption explaining what it means. Beale Street, apparently, is a famous street in Memphis, Tennessee, noted as a centre of African-American culture (the film gets the geography wrong, placing it in New Orleans, and further suggests Louis Armstrong was born there, but nobody's perfect). The film, set mostly in New York, suggests Beale Street is a metonym for the entirety of black experience in the United States.
‘Hmmm, sounds a bit heavy,' you may be thinking, and I could not in all good conscience argue that this is not to some extent the case. The film does not shy away from unpleasant realities, and its theme is essentially that an entire section of American society is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, criminality, and despair. Yet this is subtly and intelligently achieved – there's an off-hand observation that black men in their twenties are ‘already running out of familiar faces', and the lightness of touch just adds to the impact when one pauses to consider it.
This is not a strikingly angry film – although one could certainly argue that it has every right to be, being concerned from start to finish with the most terrible injustice – possibly because Jenkins is intelligent enough to appreciate that unfiltered rage can be very alienating to audiences. Rather, he just presents his story, and trusts that the intelligence and empathy of the audience. Certainly it seems to me that no civilised person could watch this film without being profoundly angered.
And yet much of the film's power comes not from anger but from its presentation of the love between Fonny, Tish, and her family, which is if anything even more central to the story. The scenes of them together are the ones which really stay with you; it is hard to overstate how gorgeously tender and delicate these moments are, superb performances accompanied by Nicholas Britell's wonderful score. The music is exceptional – the piece accompanying the scene of their first consummation of their love begins hesitantly and softly, with twitching, nervous strings, but then blooms in confidence, richness and power as it reflects what is occurring between the characters. This film contains some of the most romantic moments I have seen at the cinema in a long time, but it never forgets that part of the power of beauty is that it is ultimately ephemeral.
As I mentioned, the film is filled with fine actors doing good work, and I would imagine that it was quite difficult for the people who decide about awards and suchlike to single any of them out as being especially worthy of praise. It initially looks like the film's big turn is going to be Aunjanue Ellis' monster of pious inflexibility, but she really is in the film quite briefly, and the quality of the work done by the leads and other performers like Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris is also allowed to shine. In the end the Oscar nod has gone to Regina King, playing Fonny's mother; but I am genuinely bemused that it was shut out of most of the major categories.
It seems like nearly every year there is one big quality production clearly been intended to have a shot at the major awards, and that I really like, but which ends up under-performing. A couple of years ago it was Silence, and this year it is If Beale Street Could Talk. It may not sound like it from the description, but this really is a serious, beautiful and uplifting film that deserves to be seen as widely as possible.
Also This Week...
...RBG. Oscar-nominated doc about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, not to be confused with the actual biopic also out at the moment. Obviously Ginsberg herself is a great and inspirational figure, but the film's uncritical tone and lack of genuine insight beyond ain't-she-great and ain't-it-great-that-we-all-think-she's-great is a significant flaw; very watchable but rather lightweight and unlikely to change minds.
...A Private War. Another biopic, this one of war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in 2012. Great performance from Rosamund Pike as Colvin grounds a film which occasionally threatens to become trite and sanctimonious; gets the mixture of personal story and wider themes concerning the role of journalists more or less right. Obviously quite a downbeat story, but ultimately a worthy and well-made film.