“If Beale Street Could Talk”

James Baldwin’s 1974 novel comes to the screen with Barry Jenkins of “ Moonlight” (reviewed Nov.18th, 2016) writing and directing. I was disappointed in the absence of present day connection. Thirty-five years of stagnant progress in Black male incarceration rates is socially catastrophic. Why not add some current names to those languishing for trials and falling back on plea bargains? Jenkins would probably say there were too many. A love story that relies only on our empathy infuriates more than enlightens. I wanted to scream “Beale Street can talk…let’s hear it!”

There is anger, but it is just touched in the film. Much of the anger comes between two Black families, the Rivers and the Hunts. Our narrator Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) shares her love story. It is slow-going. There are walks in Washington Park, flashbacks to toddler bathtub play, transfixed gazes, and hours of lovers’ ennui. An almost trance-like first sexual encounter leaves Tish pregnant. The father,Fonnie Hunt (Stephen James) is falsely accused of a violent rape and jailed. Tish is left to relay her plight and seek help for Fonnie.

While her family is the epitome of love and acceptance, Fonnie’s mother and sisters are haters of the first order. Fonnie’s mother, played Bible-straight-haughty by Aunjanue Ellis, tears into Tish, “ I always knew you‘d be the destruction of my son.” She goes on to hope that the baby shrivels in Tish’s womb. Here, she is forcibly slapped in the face by her husband.

In constrast, Tish’s mother radiates a joyful faith. ”Get the good glasses…We are drinking to new life.” easily morphs into “Love is what brought you here. You trusted it then, trust it now.”

Regina King plays Tish’s wise mother. She has a lovely scene were she plays mid-wife to Tish’s water birth. She watches Tish and her grandson bond by giving them just enough space. King has strong emotions to display. I loved the scene were she fidgets with a wig readying herself to meet a Puerto Rican go-between on Fonnie’s behalf. Her lines spoken to the runaway rape victim are desperate: “ Do you think I came here to make you suffer?” and King delivers before falling to anquish. Likewise tender moments are garnered by Tish’s father, Joseph, (Coleman Domingo)as he cradles his pregnant daughter, makes her tea, and places his strong hands over her swollen stomach.

Director Jenkins likes the close-up, and a soft and hazy pallet. One of my favorite scenes has Fonnie dreaming of his sculpture work, hammering away in creative splendor, and missing his whetting stone and Tish in his arms. The fact that his innocence is not a defense rankles. Looking at someone you love through a prison screen glass is made soul-wrenching. While trial dates are postponed, Fonnie yells and then apologizes to Tish. “Do you know what is happening to me in here?” translates easily enough to the same jailhouse sexual abuse Fonnie’s friend Daniel alludes to.

The use of music as integral to life produces a memorable score. Hopelessness is never apparent. A “can do attitude” has both grandpas fencing garments. Fonnie works as a short-order cook and in a tool shop. Tish tries her luck at the perfume counter. Friends help. A bodega proprietress stands up to a rascist policeman in Fonnie’s defense, a restaurant manager gives Fonnie and Tish a white-tablecloth meal and the dance floor, and my favorite kind-person segment is when Levi shows the couple an available loft and helps Fonnie, for Tish’s benefit, move in imaginary appliances.

Harsh lives viewed through romance has me thinking that Jenkins, like Levi, ”loves people who love each other.” I was just up for a little more than doe-eyes and a series of slow, massaging scenes trying to sooth the effects of a rascist country. Love conquering all should not be race exclusive.

“Moonlight”

“Moonlight” is a beautifully acted, hard-to-watch film that is as profound as it is enervating and scattered. We begin with ten-year-olds running helter-shelter through brush and weeds, their backpacks flopping up and down with each leap. We are interested as the small boy nicknamed Little ( Alex Hibbert) hides in an abandoned trailer -like house.  We come to understand that he is being chased and bullied. Thrown rocks shatter window panes and loud fists beat on the closed door. The taunters retreat, and we meet a smiling adult who seems to take in what has happened and asks the shy Little to join him for lunch.

Mahershala Ali, who played Remy in “House Of Cards”, is the drug dealer, Juan. We are not certain if Juan is altruistic or plans on using the boy to help his trade. We surmise it may be both. He tells Little that he can’t be running around these dope-holes. Juan learns that Little already lives in one, and that he himself and his cohorts provide Little’s mother,Paula ,with her stash.

This is a coming of age tale where a shy and sullen black boy knows he doesn’t fit in. His mother, a crack-addict, comments on his walk, berates his gay tendencies, and emotionally abuses him with her alternating pushing and pulling. Her mixed messages leave their mark,and trust becomes harder to give. Paula, (Naomi Harris ) is animal-like in her needs, tender in  her intent, and abjectly terrifying as a parent. Harris’ accusatory,” You gonna raise my son now? You gonna keep selling me rocks?”  is perfectly delivered in anger and hopelessness.

Little’s one friend Kevin ( Jaden Piner) is pixie-like in his emotional intelligence. He accepts Little’s lack of words, and sparks fun where it is hard to come by. I adored this child actor in this “early Kevin ” part. His “Why you let them pick on you? Don’t be so soft.” leads to tender puppy wrestling. We have our love interest set.

In a remarkable scene, Juan teaches Little to swim. The operatic violin score is perfect as Juan turns Little on his back and opens up whole new horizons. Juan instructs him that he has to decide who is is going to be. As fatherly a role as I have seen, Ali ‘s performance is arresting. It is here that we hear an allusion to the play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” on which the semi-autobiographical script is based.

Barry Jenkins wrote and directed “Moonlight”, and his script has Juan answering Little/Chiron’s question:”What is a faggot?”  Juan’s definition is sensitive and tender: ” It is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” It is Juan who hears how much Chiron “hates” his mother, yet Chiron knows, and Juan  admits  to selling her drugs. One of my most critical comments on the film would be that Juan is allowed to fade into the night. We don’t know what happened to him as Chiron matures. We know that he has taught Chiron not to sit with his back to the door.

The teen years are hard, and made harder in this urban Miami tale where anti-gay bullying continues in the classroom. This sequence of scenes is so realistic that every teacher, social worker, and admin. will feel an added stab to the heart. Hall pushing and jostling are shown. Now fifteen and only called Chiron, he is mocked with jibes when he comes into class late: “Chiron forgot to change his tampons.”  In the counseling office, the  disconnect between student and adult is perfectly rendered by Chiron’s glazed eyes and the musical score. Ashton Sanders seamlessly plays the role of Chiron. We see his reticent, younger self, but his anger is now boiling.

Jharrel Jerome is the teen Kevin, and he succumbs to peer pressure and the ultimate betrayal of his friend and first love.  The acting is what makes this film so outstanding. Complex facial expressions, especially with the eyes, mark every close-up. Details like the Royal Crown hood ornament, the dead bugs in the fluorescent light fixture, and the heralding of “Gramma rules”, all add to the realism.

Seven years pass. Chiron is now called Black, a nickname Kevin gave him. We find him  with a silver grill, an expansive build, and financially set as a drug dealer. But he is lonely, and a juke-box song reminds him of Kevin. Impulsively , he calls Kevin after almost a decade and drives to Alabama where Kevin works as a cook. Anger is replaced with missing the intimacy that they once had.

Trevante Rhodes takes over this adult-Chiron role, while Andre Holland plays the adult Kevin. Six actors representing two men’s lives meld because of beautiful character acting. The reconnecting is almost adolescent in its stumbling sweetness. The final moonlight shot is satisfying in ways that the film is not. It is slow and choppy, painful to witness, and more profound than entertaining. Oscars for the actors and lessons for those unaware of the harsh lives many are made to lead.