Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Trying Not to Yawn on Beale Street

Well, the Golden Globes have just been handed out. In the drama category, all three of the BLACK films have come up empty. I’m talking about Black Panther, BlacKkkKlansman, and If Beale Street Could Talk, all of which tackle the African-American experience in somber terms. Among the musical and comedy nominees, the statuette was won by Green Book, which presents black-white relations in a far more positive light. Perhaps it’s true that the small cadre of Golden Globe voters, those sometimes eccentric members of the Hollywood Foreign Press, prefer their race-based stories to be uplifting. Or perhaps those three black films cancelled each other out, paving the way for the surprise victory of (huh?) Bohemian Rhapsody.

No matter. I was eager to see Beale Street for several reasons. First, it’s based on a James Baldwin novel I’ve never read. Baldwin, a masterful writer, loved movies. During a brutally unhappy childhood, he went to movie matinees for solace and inspiration. But he was hardly above criticizing films he felt demeaned the African-American experience. (His feisty book-length essay from 1976, The Devil Finds Work, contains a critique of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones that is just plain hilarious.) Baldwin’s lack of faith in Hollywood probably helps explain why his other novels have not been filmed. I noticed in the end-credits of Beale Street a heartfelt thank-you to the James Baldwin Estate. I’m guessing he did NOT want Tinseltown monkeying around with his work.

 Which brings me to reason #2. If Beale Street Could Talk was adapted as well as directed by Barry Jenkins, the young African-American who brought the Oscar-winning Moonlight to the screen in 2016. As someone who admired Moonlight (though not finding it entirely gripping as a drama), I wanted to see what Jenkins would do next. He didn’t disappoint. Beale Street revels in his trademark lushness of color, sound, and texture, particularly in its swoony interaction between two young (and very attractive) lovers, played by newcomers KiKi Layne and Stephan James. Tender family scenes, especially those involving the young heroine’s supportive mother, lively father, and high-spirited sister, also made their mark. And no one who sees this film will soon forget the outrageousness of justice denied: as a kind of antidote to the good-hearted cops of BlacKkkKlansman, Beale Street showcases how a policeman with a grudge can callously destroy an innocent young life. 

The word is that Jenkins had been working on the script for Beale Street since back when he was turning an unpublished play into Moonlight. But here’s the tricky thing about adaptation: novels, in particular, are much longer than movies. So they tend to contain far more material than any movie can handle. The challenge is to know what subplots to cut; otherwise, the resulting film will be full of loose threads, leaving us to wonder just how we got from point A to point B. I could list at length some of the frustrations presented by Beale Street. For example, what happens to the hero’s God-fearing, evil-minded mother later in the story? She certainly makes her presence felt early on, when the full implications of young Tish’s and Stephan’s plight are presented to her. So where does she go thereafter? And when the heroine’s loving mom, played by the justly-celebrated Regina King, flies off to Puerto Rico in a desperate bid to save her daughter’s lover, what is the plot logic behind her behavior? Yes, her trip sparks a dramatic confrontation, but the journey itself never makes much sense. All this clutter of detail ultimately bogs down the action, leaving me annoyed instead of inspired.

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