If Beale Street Could Talk

* * * * (out of five)

I haven’t read James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, but I have no doubt that writer / director Barry Jenkins’ (Moonlight) copy has twenty annotations per page. This is an adaptation that feels as authentic, respectful and committed to the source material as they come; Jenkins has not used the book as a starting point, he has done everything in his power to bring the book to the screen.

That included bringing the book’s emotional impact: how it makes Jenkins feel. His film version is awash with feeling; at times, it is as much about mood as anything, about how it stimulates the senses. It is about music and colour and framing and is so effective in those areas I swear that I could practically smell Riverside Park, in Harlem, in the early 1970s.

There, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) are deeply in love. They’re been in love since they were children. Now, they’re sexually active dynamic people in their early twenties, and the world, for them (and thus, for us) is aglow with colour and passion and love. At times, there is nothing in the world for them but them, and Jenkins is not afraid, in this bustling city, to render them alone on a street, cocooned in the world of their love.

But this is backstory, flashback: in the present, Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish is pregnant with their child. How their families help them with this bittersweet predicament forms the slight plot of this moving story. It is surprising, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and deeply, deeply compassionate.

It’s a world outside of my own experience and I felt a little like an outsider; Jenkins has said he makes films for black American audiences and anyone else can come if they like. How Australian audiences will relate, we’ll see. This is not a “universal story” but rather one that is highly specific to the African American experience. Except, of course, for that big, big presence of Love, which is in every frame of the film. That’s where everyone can relate; that’s (the outsiders’) “in”.

Nicholas Britell’s score is monumentally beautiful, moving and apt; it may be the first original motion picture soundtrack I’ve bought since last century. The craft in every department is similarly of the highest possible caliber. Layne and James, perversely, make the least impact (James, I find and found in Homecoming, is rather wooden) but the film’s supporting actors light up every scene around them. All are brilliant but Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s loving parents are exceptional, as is Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry in an astonishing one-scene role.

This is a deeply felt, lovingly made movie that will stand the test of time. Push your boundaries.

I Am Not Your Negro

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* * * * (out of five)

Raoul Peck, a Haitian-born director who works primarily in France, doesn’t reinvent the documentary wheel with I Am Not Your Negro, but it’s very, very fresh, and if you’re at all interested in race relations – anywhere in the world – it’s absolutely worth seeing, if not a must-see.

Peck takes the American writer James Baldwin’s letter to his agent about, and first thirty pages from, Remember This House, his unfinished manuscript from 1979, gives an edited version to Samuel L. Jackson to record, and accompanies the resulting audio with images and archival footage of Baldwin, the civil rights movement across the United States, and whatever else he might fancy, to create a singularly original work, part portrait of Baldwin, part history of the racial struggle, part essay, part manifesto.

Indeed, perhaps most manifesto. Baldwin was angry; his words are furious, incredibly precise, beautifully powerful, and seething. Footage of the man himself includes his take-downs of various establishment pontificators that amply demonstrate his huge reserves of intellect, reason and compassion. What a man, he was, what a man!

Jackson’s reading of the material is brilliant. It’s not an impersonation, and it’s not “firebrand” Jackson, either; whatever it is, it works.

This is probably the doco of the year. Highly recommended.

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