The Screening Room | 'Beale Street' a moving take on tragedy of common racism

The Screening Room | 'Beale Street' a moving take on tragedy of common racism

In a year in which we've had many films dealing with the issue of race in America, Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" is the most moving of the lot.

This seemingly unassuming story doesn't raise its voice or go out of its way to manipulate its audience to sympathize with its victims of racial injustice. Rather, in adapting the novel by James Baldwin, Jenkins concentrates on the two young people at its center, an ordinary, relatable couple whose modest dreams of happiness are torn apart by an act of random discrimination that alters their lives and tests their love in a way no one should have to endure.

Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne) are lifelong friends who have gradually become lovers and inseparable partners. Loyal to one another, they are about to break the news to their respective families that she is pregnant and they are to be married. And while this isn't welcomed by all, there's plenty of love and support for them to be optimistic about their future.

However, their bliss is shattered when he is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison for a crime that he did not commit, a circumstance the threatens the young married couple while also galvanizing their families to act in order to see justice done.

Jenkins applies a deft touch throughout the film's first act as we witness Fonny and Tish fall in love. Eschewing moments of melodrama or manipulation, the filmmaker takes a step back and allows us to simply observe the interactions between the two, seeing them engage in common acts and show a degree of tenderness and respect toward each other that are poignant displays of their devotion. It's a quiet, unassuming approach that results in the creation of a more seemingly authentic on-screen couple, one that we can relate to in a way that feels less contrived and more realistic. The result is the audience has a deeper sense of identification with Fonny and Tish, making it much easier to feel their joy and pain.

We bask in their relationship during the first 45 minutes of the film before Jenkins cruelly pulls the rug out from under us, shifting the tone of the movie to one of horror and anger as the false accusations that will tear the couple apart descend upon them with a suddenness that's shocking.

By establishing the emotional bond between the characters and the audience, Jenkins makes it easy for us to empathize with them as well as hope that the efforts of Tish's mother, Sharon (Regina King, in a powerhouse performance), and their other relatives will result in some measure of justice. Though at times at odds with one another, the family is ultimately united by this tragedy, all of them suddenly pulling in the same direction to not only free Fonny but also help Tish raise their child.

The anger that ends up propelling the film is palpable, and Jenkins, without overstating things, powerfully drives home the sense of injustice so many African-Americans have had to endure. Fonny and Tish are a common, unremarkable couple who simply want to live their lives, raise their child and pursue their passions in peace. Their aspirations are not grand, and yet they're prevented from realizing them, as modest as they might be.

This is where the power of "Beale Street" lies, in showing us the devastating tragedy and long-term effects of common racism, acts that continue to wreak havoc on innocent, unassuming people who are simply pursuing a degree of happiness we all aspire to and deserve.

If Beale Street Could Talk (★★★1/2 out of four)

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Ebony Obsidian, Diego Luna and Finn Wittrock.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the novel by James Baldwin; produced by Megan Ellison, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Jenkins.

An Annapurna Pictures release. 119 minutes. Rated R (language and some sexual content). At the Art Theater and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

"On the Basis of Sex" simply doesn't ring true. (★★ out of four). During the 1930s and '40s, biopics were a staple of the major studios, particularly Warner Bros. and MGM, where films were made recounting the greatness of the men — and occasional woman — who made the world a wonderful place to live in. These portraits espoused the virtues of their subject, presenting them as models we should aspire to.

Of course, in retrospect, these films come off as ridiculous, with the subjects' positive attributes often exaggerated, their faults never mentioned and facts sometimes reimagined as heroic acts. (For example, check out "They Died with Their Boots On" (1941), with Errol Flynn as Maj. Gen. George Custer, for an egregious misrepresentation of the bigoted megalomaniac.)

Mimi Leder's "On the Basis of Sex," an examination of a key section of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life, comes off as one of those old, hoary productions, a simplistic look at a complex woman that fails to realistically capture her spirit.

Following Ginsburg's struggles to be taken seriously by her peers and the men who controlled the legal profession in the '50s and '60s, the film focuses primarily on a key case dealing with sexual discrimination that she argued before the Supreme Court and was the basis for overturning other discriminatory laws and practices. This is all fairly interesting, but there are far too many distractions in the way the movie's subject is portrayed, which prevents us from becoming fully immersed in it.

As one of only nine women in her class at Harvard Law School, Ginsburg not only raised a child while completing her studies, but nursed her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer, in a thankless role), back to health after he was diagnosed with cancer. She also attended his classes, took notes for him and helped write his papers so that he might graduate on time and go out to be the breadwinner of the family. For her trouble, she was still unable to find a job as an attorney in any New York firm and settled for a professorship at Rutgers.

As the film hits upon her various plights, Leder goes out of her way to underscore again and again, in large ways and small, that Ginsburg was put upon at every turn, seemingly unable to get through a single day without having to endure a slight of some sort because she was a smart woman trying to succeed in a man's world. Whether it be at a posh dinner, in class, at a hospital or walking down the street, Ginsburg suffers in a world that's intent on keeping her down because of her sex. It all becomes too much to bear, so much so that the irony that she's defending a man in a case of sexual discrimination rings hollow.

As Ginsburg, Felicity Jones takes on the role with chin up, shoulders square, chest out, her gleaming eyes looking far into the future to the recognition she knows awaits her, a heroine cut from pristine cloth. Other than showing Ginsburg as a bit of an overbearing mother, Daniel Stiepleman's script gives us a woman with nary a blemish, making her not only unrealistic, but also a bit of a bore.

The movie is much too good to be true and simply doesn't hold any water in an era in which well-rounded biopics are wanted and expected. "On the Basis of Sex" simply doesn't dig deep enough where this fascinating woman is concerned, and as such, fails to do her justice.

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