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Posts Tagged ‘Barry Jenkins’

Stephan James and Kiki Layne

“IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK” My rating: B+

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Barry Jenkins’ followup to “Moonlight” begins with a God’s-eye view of a young couple walking hand in hand.

This impossibly handsome pair are Tish (Kiki Layne), age 19, and Fonny (Stephan James), 20, African American New Yorkers in the early 1970s.  They’ve been friends since childhood, but are  thinking of taking their relationship to a new physical level.

“Are you ready for this?”

“I’ve been ready for this my whole life.”

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin (incredibly, the first of his many works to receive big-screen dramatization), is a deeply affecting love story. But that’s just the starting point.

Baldwin used the Tish/Fonny relationship and its many hurdles to comment on the place of black folk in America. The relationship of two young people in love is simultaneously an indictment of societal evil.

Jenkins’ screenplay, like the novel, centers on Fonny’s arrest on a trumped-up rape charge, a development that shatters the joy that otherwise would be unleashed by Tish’s revelation that she’s pregnant. The film’s time-jumping narrative zaps between the couple’s life together and their separation as Fonny awaits trial.

All this is told in a series of beautifully acted scenes that isolate key moments in the lives of the characters. One of these is a gathering of the couple’s families for the announcement of the pregnancy.

Tish’s parents, Sharon and Joseph (Regina King, Colman Domingo), are hugely supportive. So is Fonny’s garrulous father, Frank (Michael Beach).  But Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is a sanctimonious harpy who all but damns the baby in the womb and curses Tish for leading her boy astray.

(more…)

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20s

Trevante Rhodes as the twenty something Chiron

“MOONLIGHT” My rating: B+ 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Think of  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” as an African-American variation on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It is an epic chronicle of childhood giving way to adolescence, and adolescence becoming a lonely adulthood.

The difference is that “Boyhood” was pretty much straightforward storytelling, while “Moonlight” is pure poetry. It is, in short, a genuine black art film, filled with beauty and horror, small comforts and big challenges.

Through the character of Chiron, a young Floridian played by three actors of different ages, writer/director Bennett gives us a deeply personal story which, without belaboring the point, can stand for the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young black men.

It’s not about drugs or poverty or gang life per se, and there’s no obviously political agenda (in fact white people are almost never seen), but “Moonlight” cannot help folding those socially relevant topics into its narrative.

At the same time the movie is less about facts (it’s filled with unanswered questions) than about feelings. It’s about a few seconds of blessed respite during a suffocatingly tense day, about water and sand and tropical heat, about activity fearfully captured out of the corner of one’s eye.

In one sense it’s practically documentary without the usual big dramatic speeches (the film’s protagonist is incapable of verbal grandstanding), but captured in a swirling riot of camera movement, color and conflicting sounds.

When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little as he’s called by just about everyone, he’s hiding in an abandoned apartment building, having been pursued by schoolyard bullies. As his name suggests, Little is small. Also shy, withdrawn, mistrustful and uncommunicative.

He’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug lord, who provides safe escort and takes the boy to his apartment and his nurturing girlfriend Teresa (KCK native Janelle Monae, making a seemingly effortless transition from pop stardom to film acting).

Over the course of weeks and months the cocaine slinger and his woman will become Little’s surrogate parents, providing food, shelter and — as weird as it may sound — examples of more-or-less responsible adulthood…something painfully lacking in Little’s relationship with his  increasingly drug dependent mother (Naomie Harris).

Ali (sure to be honored as a supporting actor Oscar nominee) makes of Juan a deeply complex figure. He’s a criminal, but his relationship with Little is one of selfless nurturing.  Countless films have prepared us for Ali to use the kid as part of his drug business, but that never happens.

Instead he takes the boy to the beach and gently coaxes him into learning to float on the rocking waves. When Little asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan answers with profound sincerity that Little may be gay, but he’s no faggot.

Other life lessons follow.  “No place in this world ain’t got black people,” Juan declares.  “We were the first people here.”

And especially:  “At some point you gotta decide for yoursdrelf who you gonna be.” (more…)

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