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Posts Tagged ‘Barry Jenkins’

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, will not be more acclaimed by the Academy than looks likely to be the case, 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 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; whether she wins the award or not I don’t know, but it might be worth a flutter – it would be good to see this film get some kind of recognition, and I am genuinely bemused that it has really been shut out of most of the major categories.

It seems like nearly every year there is one big quality production that has 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.

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Here’s one for pub quiz fiends: which Best Picture Oscar-winning film made the least money at the box office? The answer is, of course, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. How about this one: which Best Picture Oscar-winning film was made for the lowest budget? Now here we come to a bit of a wrinkle, as, in terms of your actual dollars, Marty (1955) was made for only $350,000, but allowing for inflation over the last sixty years, in today’s money it would set you back $3.2 million. If you take inflation into account, then the most financially prudent winner of the big prize is this year’s recipient, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.

Yup, I know I very confidently said it was going to be La La Land, but then so did everyone else, and it just goes to show that in showbiz nobody knows nothing. The question, of course, is whether Moonlight really counts as showbiz or not? Certainly the Oscars won by this film have propelled it to a level of prominence one would not have normally associated with a film on this scale or concerning this kind of subject matter.

This is a film in three parts, concerning the life of a young black man living in an underprivileged part of Florida. As the film opens, Little (Alex Hibbert) is hiding from a gang of bullies in a derelict house (the implication is that this is a crack den). Here he is discovered by local crack kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes a shine to the lad and becomes a sort of mentor to him, unlikely though that seems. Little’s mother (Naomie Harris) is not best pleased by this, but the issue is complicated by the fact she is one of Juan’s customers herself.

Things don’t get any easier for the lad as he grows older, and by the time he is a teenager, now going by his given name of Chiron (and now played by Ashton Sanders), his mother has become a full-blown addict and he is being viciously bullied at school. He is also struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality, which is outside the acceptable norms of the local street culture. Fleeting moments of happiness are accompanied by long periods of quiet despair.

And, of course, there’s a third act, in which Chiron has become an adult, adopted the street name Black and is now a fairly successful crack dealer himself (by this point he has grown up into Trevante Rhodes). Outwardly he seems to have successfully reinvented himself, but an unexpected contact with an old acquaintance opens the door to a lot of unfinished business…

Yeah, so this is a serious drama about a black gay crack dealer, so not something that would usually hurtle to the top of my list of things to see (it’s just too mainstream, I guess). To the credit of the audience who went to the same weekday lunchtime showing that I do, nobody actually walked out or started throwing things at the screen, but I really strongly doubt that most of them would have been there had the movie not had that priceless Best Picture imprimatur about it (I have a horrible suspicion that many conversations along the lines of, ‘This beat La La Land to best picture (eventually)! We loved La La Land! This must be even better! Let’s go and see it!’ preceded trips out to the film). It’s the kind of film that usually has ‘art-house darling’ written all over it.

And never let it be said that people who go to art-house cinemas don’t have taste, for Moonlight is an involving drama, clearly made with great thoughtfulness and care. The central gimmick of the lead character being played by three different performers doesn’t even feel particularly gimmicky, nor does the structure of the film (it has chapter headings, but no title card until the very end) seem too affected. It’s hardly a barrel of laughs, but then I don’t think it was ever intended to be.

What the film seems to be about is… well, I’m minded to be a little cautious here, for despite the fact this film emanates from the present-day USA, it is nevertheless from a culture (or indeed a set of cultures) which are not my own, and thus deserving of the same sort of respect I’d give a movie from Asia or one of the remoter parts of Europe. You get the idea. Anyway, it seems to me that this is not so much a film which is simply about a black gay crack dealer, but about an essential crisis when it comes to black identity in the United States.

The film’s thesis appears to be that the dominant image of manhood for most underprivileged black men is that of the successful  gangster, and that this is source of their underachievement and tendency to become involved in criminality (the characters in the film appear to take it for granted that going to prison is just one of those things that happens in the life of a young black man). This issue is compounded for non-heterosexual black men, naturally. Certainly, it’s Juan who becomes Chiron’s mentor and (almost) surrogate father, and it’s telling that when he becomes an adult Chiron has remade himself very much in Juan’s image: he doesn’t seem to have any alternative available to him. (The film is subtle enough not to deal in simplicities here – Juan is not some simple gangster stereotype, but one of the most appealing and sympathetic characters in the film.)

And, by the way, it may be that the film has a point about the image of the black male in the American media – Mahershala Ali’s performance is extremely good, but I couldn’t help thinking I’d seen it before, for his early-exit turn as a somewhat conflicted crime boss in Moonlight was preceded by his early-exit turn as a somewhat conflicted crime boss in the Luke Cage TV series. The archetypes, not to mention the stereotypes, are deeply embedded. It’s a complex issue, however, though Moonlight handles it with a thoughtfulness and imagination I’d only previously seen in back issues of Green Lantern: Mosaic from 1992.

In the end… was this film honestly intended to work solely as a piece of entertainment on any level? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, Moonlight is assured of some kind of place in history, and not just because of the low budget or Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway faffing about with the envelope, but as the first film with an all-black cast and a gay theme to win the Oscar for Best Picture (no, Brokeback Mountain didn’t win; it was Crash that year, apparently). Whether this is simply a case of virtue-signalling by the voters, or the result of people wanting to support a film with some significance at an important moment in US history (rather than Damien Chazelle’s lighter-than-air crowd-pleaser), I don’t know: much as I respect this film and find it admirable, and appreciate the skill and delicacy with which it handles some unpromising subject matter, I think I would have found myself voting for La La Land, to be honest (or Silence, had it been in contention). But that’s just me. We can probably spend all day going round and round about whether it should have won and indeed why, but the fact remains that it did, and it is by no means unworthy of the honour.

 

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