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Alan Charlton

Experiencing the black experience

Voices Feb. 6, 2019

Stephan James, KiKi Layne, and Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk, a film that is painful to watch as it follows a likable couple living out the black experience, writes Alan Charlton. (Annapurna Pictures)

A quotation from James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk at the beginning of the film adaptation, points out that, although most people associate Beale Street with New Orleans, every major American city has its Beale Street – a place where the black experience is being lived out.

It is the aim of the movie to help the viewer understand what that means. This the film certainly does in a very dramatic and compelling fashion.

In If Beale Street Could Talk film, the audience is introduced to Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo Hunt (Stephen James), in most respects an ordinary and charming couple falling in love – except that they are not white and therefore subjected to all that that implies.

Though they try to plan their lives as any couple might and confront challenges, including disapproval of their union by a family member, the film also shows them facing other less common problems, such as being accepted as prospective tenants by racist landlords.

Even when they have, optimistically, been able to find somewhere to live – a place most couples would refuse to consider – their troubles are by no means over, particularly when Alonzo is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.

So it is that the film also deals with the black experience when it comes to being caught up in and victimized by the legal system. The victimizing of black people has by no means been ignored by Hollywood – we are all familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, if nothing else. But it is a strength of If Beale Street Could Talk that it does not lose its focus on the inhabitants of “Beale Street.”

Few white people appear anywhere in the film, and the sympathetic viewpoint thus engendered makes the film painful to watch as one follows the journey of the likable couple. Indeed, it gives viewers pause as it reminds us that racism is very much a part of our society and that the film has relevance to much of the developed world.

It should be noted that the film includes two sexually explicit scenes – both unnecessary in that the plot development that follows from them could have been presented in far less explicit fashion.

The film is beautifully acted, has a superb musical background, and is sensitively directed by writer-director Barry Jenkins, frequently putting the viewer in the position of the characters and making their experience even more vivid.  Unfortunately, a decidedly upbeat ending has also been tacked on, one which tends to undercut the impact of the film; one hopes it was not included to make audiences less uncomfortable with the film’s experience, which nevertheless remains long after leaving the cinema.

We are obviously seeing an example of the trend to make movies less “white” – a trend very noticeable in this year’s Oscar nominations, not only with BlackkKlansman, Black Panther, and Greenbook, but also with Roma. While my pick for Best Picture is overwhelmingly the brilliant Roma, it is good to note these other films have been acknowledged not because they reflect a long-overdue racial diversity, but because all of them have real merit.

Unfortunately, this means other films of considerable merit may have been excluded to make room for the exceptional films. And why are Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star if Born (films which proved popular at the box office, despite their lack of artistic merit) included? For that matter why is the tedious and over-wrought The Favourite included, while The Death of Stalin and Can You Ever Forgive Me? are not?

While If Beale Street Could Talk has been ignored in almost all of the major film categories and not one female director has been nominated, the good thing is we can ignore the Oscars, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Golden Globes and choose our own viewing.

For those who haven’t yet selected it, If Beale Street Could Talk, nominated or not, remains a great film experience to discover and reflect upon.