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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Film Review: Barry Jenkins Grapples With James Baldwin’s Prose in Powerful Drama

Faith in a very pure romantic attraction between two people was the dramatic core of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” and that same faith is the animating principle of his much-anticipated follow-up, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a rich but very unwieldy adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.

“Moonlight” originated in a story from the gifted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Jenkins was able to make the narrative of that sensitive film his own by applying a poetic kind of stealth to the subjective visuals. But Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” makes for a much more demanding and intimidating authorial basis for a movie.

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, “Race”) have known each other since they were children. Jenkins’ film, like Baldwin’s novel, is told from Tish’s point of view and moves backward and forward in time in a way that suggests puzzle pieces scattered out on a table.

Also Read: 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Director Barry Jenkins on Why Showing Vulnerability Is 'a Sign of Strength'

Tish is 19 years old and Fonny is 22 when they first begin to love each other in a romantic, adult and sexual fashion, and Jenkins begins his movie with a shot of them walking together. They stare into each other’s eyes and seem to get lost there, but that process is abruptly halted when we learn that Fonny has been put in jail for a crime he did not commit. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says on the soundtrack. We see her meeting with Fonny in prison and telling him that she is pregnant with his child.

There is a formality to the language here and to the heightened, rather torturously plotted dramatic situations, and so Jenkins wisely tries to put everything across visually as simply as possible. This is not a director’s performance type of movie as “Moonlight” was but more like a test of skill and imagination. What needs to really be stressed in any assessment of “If Beale Street Could Talk” is just how difficult Baldwin’s source material is to translate into a film.

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Toward the beginning of this movie, there is an outsized, Shakespearean confrontation scene between Tish and her parents and Fonny’s family, which is dominated by his very religious mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis). Tish tells us on the soundtrack that Mrs. Hunt both disapproves of her as a mate for her son and also sometimes thinks that Fonny deserves her as a kind of punishment. This sort of deep-dish psychological observation sounds very literary, and when we hear it as narration and then see how Mrs. Hunt behaves, the effect feels somehow unbalanced, or top-heavy.

There is a sense sometimes in “If Beale Street Could Talk” that Tish’s narration competes with the imagery rather than deepening it. There are worse problems a film can have than overly brilliant writing, of course, but it is Baldwin’s lyric talent that puts over the tangled plot he chose, and Jenkins might have had an easier time if he had simplified this plot somewhat and cut down on the novelistic sprawl.

Fonny has been falsely accused of rape by Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), a Latinx woman who has fled to Puerto Rico after picking Fonny out in a line-up. It is made clear that Fonny has been railroaded by a white cop who has it in for him, and it is also made clear that Victoria has been raped, just not by Fonny. But a narrative that revolves around a false rape charge has unfortunate resonances in this particular American moment.

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“If Beale Street Could Talk” contains some indelible moments, none more so than a brief scene involving Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), who goes down to Puerto Rico to try to convince Victoria to save Fonny. When she gets to her hotel room, Sharon tries on a wig that she brought for the occasion, and then she slowly takes it off. Sharon is tired of the falseness of this wig, and King gets across how deep this tiredness goes.

And so it feels tragic when the next scene shows Sharon wearing the wig, which has the unintended consequence of making her look too slickly armored and insincere to the man she has come to see about Victoria. (In Baldwin’s novel, Sharon covers her head with a shawl, and Jenkins’ use of a wig instead really adds something emotional and profound to the drama.)

In this sequence in Puerto Rico, and in other scenes of attempted connection and disconnection between people, Jenkins shows some of the talent he displayed in “Moonlight.” This is a film worth grappling with, even if Baldwin’s own talent has a diva-like way of pulling the focus back to his book and away from what we are seeing on the screen.

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‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Fact Check: Was Queen Elizabeth’s Ambassador Actually Black?

“Mary Queen of Scots” is director Josie Rourke’s historical retelling of one of the most fraught and interesting periods of the Elizabethan era. But how much of it is fact and how much is fiction?

The film, which is written by Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) and based on a book by John Guy, stars Saoirse Ronan in the titular role as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. It also showcases a number of actors of color in prominent roles in both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s courts, including decorated Shakespearean actor Adrian Lester, who is black; he portrays Elizabeth’s ambassador to the Scottish court, Lord Thomas Randolph.

Rourke told TheWrap that colorblind casting a period drama was important to her, because of the many years black and other people of color were left out of such portrayals and films.

Also Read: 'Mary, Queen of Scots' Film Review: Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie Make Worthy, Regal Adversaries

“I was really clear, I would not direct an all-white period drama,” Rourke said. “Adrian, who plays, Lord Randolph, grew up 40 miles from the birthplace of William Shakespeare; he is one of our eminent Shakespearean actors. I needed to cast an ambassador who could move between the two courts and help this make sense. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t cast him.”

There were people of color in England during that time. According to the U.K. national archives, Elizabeth would have employed black servants and musicians, and even had a black chambermaid, though seeing a person of color as high up as Lord Randolph would have been improbable. Rourke said, however, that she didn’t see any reason that these actors couldn’t play these prominent roles in “Mary Queen of Scots.”

Also Read: 'Mary Queen of Scots' Trailer Pits Saoirse Ronan Against Margot Robbie's Queen Elizabeth I (Video)

There is also the part of David Rizzio, who plays a major role both in history and in the film. Rizzio was an Italian-born courtier who served as private secretary and was a confidante to Mary. In “Mary Queen of Scots” he is portrayed by Puerto Rico-born actor Ismael Cruz Córdova (“Ray Donovan”). Rizzio was murdered by Mary’s husband and a group of lords, having convinced Lord Darnley that Rizzio and Mary’s close relationship was the summation of adultery.

British actress Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians”), who is of Chinese decent, also plays a prominent role in the film as Bess of Hardwick, who accumulated wealth and power during the Elizabethan era, both from her close proximity to Queen Elizabeth and having survived four marriages. In “Mary Queen of Scots,” she is a confidante of Queen Elizabeth, arranging a meeting between her and Mary, and later assuming the role of Mary’s keeper during her captive days.

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Edward Norton, Alan Alda, Mariska Hargitay Join Nat Geo’s 6-City ‘Paris to Pittsburgh’ Screening Blitz (Exclusive)

Activists and environmentally conscience celebrities, including Edward Norton, Alan Alda and Mariska Hargitay, will join former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg this week for a special nationwide screening blitz of Nat Geo’s environmental documentary “Paris to Pittsburgh,” TheWrap has learned exclusively.

Six U.S. cities will simultaneously screen the film Monday night — many with their mayors introducing the film — in an effort to shine a light on the need for cities, states and citizens to come together to fight climate change. Charleston, Des Moines, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and Orlando will get a sneak peek at the doc ahead of its global release on Dec. 12 at 9pm ET/PT on National Geographic, with additional screenings scheduled in Puerto Rico, London and Poland.

“With Washington asleep at the switch, local governments, states, businesses, and citizens from across the political spectrum are taking steps to tackle climate change and build a bright future for our country,” Bloomberg, who produced the movie through his Bloomberg Philanthropies, said in a statement. “We need more leadership from Washington on climate change, but Americans aren’t waiting around for it.”

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Other attendees expected to attend: Peter Hermann, Walt Disney Chairman and NRDC Board Chair Alan Horn, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Zero Hour’s Iris Fen Gillingham and Jamie Margolin, Katherine Oliver, Joe Berlinger, Emmy Award winning directors Michael Bonfiglio and Sidney Beaumont, Radical Media’s Jon Kamen and Frank Scherma, among others.

The announcement comes on the heels of a federal climate change report last month focusing on the dire threat that human-made global warming poses to the United States. It also comes as world leaders are heading to Poland on Dec. 3 for the COP24 to try and salvage the 2015 climate change Paris Accord, after President Trump reneged on the deal last summer.

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“Paris to Pittsburgh” looks at how states, businesses and citizens are taking action and delve into the social and economic impacts of climate change in the wake of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

The premise of the documentary is based on a Twitter response from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to President Trump the moment he pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

In his speech announcing the U.S. would withdrawal from the agreement, President Trump said in a press conference last June that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

“I’m sitting in this room, I’m looking over at my phone and I get an alert,” Peduto says in an exclusive clip of the doc obtained by TheWrap. “Read it twice, went into my chief of staff office and yelled, ‘Pittsburgh?!'”

Peduto said that’s when he composed his now famous response telling the president that Pittsburgh was going to stay in the Paris Agreement.

“On the heels of the recent federal report on climate change, we believe it is more critical than ever to create a global conversation about climate and to provide people with tangible ways they can help make a difference,” Courteney Monroe, president, National Geographic Global Networks, said in statement. “For us, it is not enough to just create this type of important, thought-provoking content. We need to be equally committed to ensuring it reaches the widest audience possible.”

Also Read: Elon Musk Quits Trump Advisory Role Over Paris Accord Exit: 'Climate Change Is Real'

“Paris to Pittsburgh” is produced RadicalMedia in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and is co- directed by Emmy Award winners Sidney Beaumont and Michael Bonfiglio. Beaumont also produced the film. Executive Producers are Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger, Jon Kamen and Katherine Oliver. Co-producers are Lindsay Firestone and Katie Dunn. Antha Williams of the Bloomberg Philanthropies environment program served as a consulting producer.

Watch an exclusive clip of the movie above and the trailer below.

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