Tag Archives: Stephan James

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.

Courage at a Crossroads


by George Wolf

Make way for the cliche train, here comes another sports biopic….well, not so fast. Race manages to break convention in subtle but important ways, bringing a graceful spotlight to the heroic story of Jesse Owens, perhaps the greatest track and field athlete in history.

Stephan Janes (John Lewis in Selma) delivers a breakout lead performance as Owens, who won four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Transcending the games, Owens personified the folly of Nazi delusion as the Fuhrer himself looked on. This convergence of sport and history makes Owens’s story fertile ground for hyperbolic melodrama, but Race works best when it presses least.

Director Stephan Hopkins (Predator 2, The Reaping) seems properly motivated by the inevitable comparisons to similar biopics, specifically 42. He effectively differentiates Race at critical junctures, none better than the moment Owens’s track coach at Ohio State University, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), is lecturing him on the need to ignore the hateful racial catcalls.

Rather than the manufactured wisdom of another locker room sermon barked from teacher to pupil, Hopkins frames the scene as an active choice by Owens himself, and the result is all the more human and satisfying. Though not every exchange works quite as well, screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse keep the “white savior” leanings from overtaking Snyder’s character, and a fine dramatic debut from Sudeikis doesn’t hurt.

Hopkins delivers athletic sequences that are often thrilling (the wonderfully panoramic set piece when Owens enters Berlin stadium may elicit goosebumps), but Race doesn’t shrink from the responsibilities implicit in its title.

The pressure Owens felt to boycott the games, and the racism impervious to gold medals both reach you without undue manipulation. Even more impressive is the nuance the film brings to the cozy relationship between nationalism, hypocrisy and oppression.

Though historians may quibble with the details, an engaging support narrative emerges as Olympic Committee advisor Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurant) and German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) dance around contrasting personal agendas. All three actors are stellar, fleshing out another reminder of the watershed nature of the period.

The life of Jesse Owens was marked by courage and achievement at a crossroads of world history. Weaving those elements together in an effective dramatic context is a tricky endeavor, but one that Race gets mostly right.