Tag Archives: James Baldwin

Voices of Experience

If Beale Street Could Talk

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Writer/director Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 Oscar-winning masterpiece of a debut, Moonlight, with the ambitious goal of translating the work of a beautifully complex writer to a cinematic narrative. By respecting the material with a stirring commitment to character, If Beale Street Could Talk meets that goal with grace.

Based on the novel by James Baldwin (and the first English-language adaptation of his fiction), the film follows a struggling couple as a means to illustrate the intersecting forms of oppression facing African Americans.

Tish (KiKi Layne in an impressive feature debut) and “Fonny” (Stephan James, from Selma and Race) are a young couple in Harlem who embraces their unexpected pregnancy while struggling to prove Fonny’s innocence in a rape case.

As the surface tension is driven by the potentially dangerous chances Kiki’s mother (Regina King) takes to clear Fonny’s name, smaller, more quiet moments around the neighborhood cement Baldwin’s incisive take on what it means to be black in America.

Baldwin’s writing – a mix of brutal honesty, brilliant clarity and weary outrage – is understandably daunting as a film adaptation. Themes which breathe with life on the page can come to the screen in an awkward rush and land as heavy handed melodrama.

Jenkins, whose early script got the blessing of Baldwin’s estate even before the triumph of Moonlight, brings an elegance to the story which fits comfortably. A poetic camera, authentic characters and tender, fully realized performances—especially from the glorious King—weave together to sing the praises of Baldwin’s prose in hypnotic, and often heartbreaking fashion.

Amid a story of grim realities and American resilience lie bonds of love and family that the film never loses sight of, even in its most sober moments, which may be the most miraculous aspect of If Beale Street Could Talk.

It is a film without illusions, but one that carries the unbowed spirit of its characters on a deeply felt journey that honors its origins.

Truth to Power

I Am Not Your Negro

by George Wolf

It may be driven by content decades old, but I Am Not Your Negro wastes no time in driving home its urgency.

As author James Baldwin tells Dick Cavett why he doesn’t view 1968 as a year of “progress for Negroes,” disturbing images of recent conflicts roll in succession, connecting the two eras with gut-wrenching irony.

Director Raoul Peck weaves notes from Baldwin’s unfinished 1979 novel Remember This House, along with interview and archival footage, to give new life to Baldwin’s assertion that the history of Negroes in American tells the story of America itself.

“It is not pretty.”

At its very core, the film is a  reminder of Baldwin’s intellect and clarity of thought. From page to interview to personal letter to public debate, Baldwin had an innate ability to communicate his ideas with laser focus and biting precision. And Peck (Sometimes in April) finds an effective balance between letting the historical Baldwin (who died in 1987) speak for himself, and entrusting a famous voice to speak for him.

Samuel L Jackson recites Baldwin’s prose, wisely trading the voice that is so recognizable for a hushed delivery that lends gravity to each carefully chosen word. There is a furious anger here, but Jackson’s trademark boom would have been both out of character and a needless distraction. In its place is a perfect tone of reverence and wisdom that commands attention as effectively as any of Jackson’s fiery movie monologues.

As Baldwin speaks of his own time, there’s no doubt he is also speaking directly to ours. It is no coincidence that the last twelve months have given us three of the most compelling documentaries on racial strife we have seen in years. 13th, OJ: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro (all Oscar-nominated this year) are all worthy of any course in American history, each dissecting our deeply troubled times from unique perspectives.

If there is any point that shows the age of Baldwin’s original essays – and make no mistake, the depth of their relevance is often stunning – it is the lack of any substantial female perspective beyond that of suffering wives. Though the male-centric view is more understandable when considering Baldwin’s original book idea was based on the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it remains noticeable.

But through Peck and Jackson, an unforgettable voice from the past becomes an indispensable storyteller for today. I Am Not Your Negro tells that story.

No, it is not pretty, but it demands to be seen.