A lot goes on in a neighborhood that comes to define its character. In so doing, the community almost takes on a life and personality of its own, one that frequently persists and comes to distinguish the area in question, including its residents, for generation after generation. It’s a phenomenon that essentially becomes a way of life for all concerned, a circumstance examined in the moving new screen drama, “If Beale Street Could Talk” (web site, trailer).
As the film opens, a cinematic epigraph references Beale Street in New Orleans, a place where writer James Baldwin, author of the book on which this picture is based, contends that every Black person born in America comes from, even those who don’t call the Big Easy home. Baldwin says there’s a version of Beale Street, the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and jazz, in every urban African-American neighborhood, a place from which the community has its collective roots. It’s a noisy place, one with an array of qualities, including the love of family and the ugliness of injustice. And it’s just such a place that serves as the backdrop of this story, in this case the iteration found in New York City’s Harlem in the 1970s.
Nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since childhood. Having grown up as friends and playmates, they have since come to be lovers as they enter young adulthood. The connection between them is undeniable, as if they were destined to be together. And, for the most part, their bond is supported by their families, who have also been acquainted with one another for years. Tish’s parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), adore Fonny and are so pleased that their daughter and sibling have found such a genuinely good man to love. However, the Hunts don’t share that enthusiasm; while Fonny’s dad (and Joseph’s drinking buddy), Frank (Michael Beach), likes Tish, the same can’t be said for his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne). They look upon Tish with disparagement and condescension, a belief that she’s not good enough for their son and brother. And it’s a gap that’s about to widen now as Tish is about to reveal some big news about herself and Fonny.
Tish’s big announcement is that she’s carrying Fonny’s child, a revelation that utterly appalls Mrs. Hunt. As a self-proclaimed (supposedly) good Christian woman, she’s revolted by the news, especially given that Tish and Fonny aren’t married. She berates the mother of her grandchild for her “sin,” even going so far as to say that she hopes the child is never born. But her scorn doesn’t stop there; she also chastises Tish for being the source of all the trouble that has befallen Fonny of late, including blaming her for his incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish and her family know that Fonny has been wrongly jailed, and they’re working tirelessly to help secure his release with the assistance of a lawyer (Finn Wittrock) seeking to overturn the racially motivated charges. But, as these circumstances quickly reveal, it becomes apparent that the only meaningful help Tish and her family will get from the Hunts will come from Frank, who angrily lashes out at his wife’s tactless and hypocritical behavior.
Faced with the prospect of having to raise a child on her own, at least for now, Tish does her best to carry on. She continues to work at her job as a cosmetics salesgirl in an upscale department store to earn money to cover living expenses and legal bills. She regularly visits Fonny in jail in an attempt to lift his spirits while he awaits trial. And she and her family routinely meet with Fonny’s lawyer to coordinate strategy on how to get his case thrown out. It’s a full plate for someone who has a new life steadily – and rather actively – growing inside her.
Securing Fonny’s release may be more difficult than thought, however. His alibi is likely to be looked upon as suspect, given that it involved spending time in the company of an old friend (Brian Tyree Henry) who had himself just been released from prison. To complicate matters, the arresting officer (Ed Skrein) turns out to be someone with whom Fonny had had a previous contentious encounter, one that clearly brought out the policeman’s racial prejudice. And, on top of all that, the victim (Emily Rios) who made the accusations – serious charges involving rape and other comparable atrocities – has fled New York, disappearing to her native Puerto Rico. With these elements working against Tish and Fonny, the prospects of his release before the birth of his child – and possibly even at all – grow progressively dim. Even the love that permeates New York’s version of Beale Street may not be enough to overcome the injustice that also resides there. One can only hope that it’s enough to sustain all concerned as they work through their respective trials and tribulations and look forward to the hope of a brighter future.
The rollercoaster of emotions that is “Beale Street” examines what it means to address both life’s joys and its challenges. Through its depiction of the love of a family, it shows what makes life worth living. At the same time, it also shines a bright light on the ugliness and unfairness that can unduly unravel the happiness we would all like to enjoy. But, perhaps most importantly, it aptly depicts the resilience of the human spirit to deal with such trying conditions, that the love that brings us into being can help to sustain us through our hardships and, one would hope, help us find a way to carry on and make the best of things. That’s certainly difficult for characters like Tish and Fonny, but, when one sees the depth of the bond that joins them, it’s obvious they’ll figure out a way to carry on, no matter what may befall them.
In making the first James Baldwin novel ever to be adapted for the big screen in the author’s native voice, writer/director Barry Jenkins has undertaken quite a task with this venture. That’s quite a tall order, too, given that it’s coming on the heels of the filmmaker’s much acclaimed Oscar-winning masterpiece “Moonlight” (2016), itself a formidable accomplishment. And, in many regards, this offering shines on many levels, coming close to matching its lavishly praised predecessor. With fine performances, beautiful cinematography, genuinely evocative emotion, a sumptuous background score and a skillfully crafted ambiance, “If Beale Street Could Talk” effectively draws viewers into the world of 1970s Harlem, one characterized by a mix of heartfelt love and ugly injustice. However, despite its many attributes, the film is somewhat bogged down by excessively lingering imagery and protracted dialogue that both go on a little too long, needlessly slowing the narrative’s pace. Some of that comes with the territory in a picture that’s driven more by character development than plot, but what’s presented here still could have used some tightening up. What’s more, in an attempt to avoid being too heavy-handed, the director at times uses a little too much restraint in his storytelling, keeping the picture from having an impact that isn’t as viscerally potent as it could (and should) have been. In all, Jenkins’s offering is a fine effort in many respects, though one that I wish could have been a little better. But, then, considering what Jenkins had to live up to, that would have been quite the challenge for any filmmaker.
Nevertheless, “If Beale Street Could Talk” has been wowing critics and earning numerous accolades in this year’s awards competitions. The picture earned three Golden Globe Award nominations for best dramatic picture, screenplay and King’s supporting actress performance, an award for which she came up the winner. These honors came on top of those presented by the National Board of Review, which named the picture one of the year’s top 10 films and bestowed it with awards for best adapted screenplay and King’s portrayal. In upcoming contests, the film is vying for five Critics Choice Awards, including best picture, screenplay, score and cinematography, as well as King’s supporting performance. In addition, the picture is up for best feature, director and supporting actress in the Independent Spirit Awards competition.
As trite or sentimental as it might seem, the belief that “love will find a way” often turns out to ring true more than not. It’s difficult to see the veracity of this when things get tough, but, when we come through our turmoil and look back on how we turned matters around, we frequently find that this intangible force is what usually gets us back on our feet. If we have faith in it and adhere to our convictions, we just might find that our ordeals can turn around more quickly and smoothly than we thought possible. When faced with significant difficulties, it could be all we have to draw upon. And, if that happens, why not give it a chance? After all, what do we have to lose? If we successfully draw upon it and manage to reverse our circumstances, that would certainly give us – and our own version of Beale Street – a lot to talk about.
A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.
Dissecting the Unbridled Pursuit of Power
Power makes much possible. It can be wielded to achieve tremendous, beneficial outcomes. It can also be mangled in contorted ways to fulfill self-serving ends. But, no matter how it’s employed, power comes with consequences of either a positive or negative nature, both individually and collectively. Learning how to manage it to attain desired outcomes while avoiding unintended harm is thus crucial to make the best use of it, a challenge frequently put to the test as seen in the life of an ambitious politician, a story depicted in the new comedy-drama biopic, “Vice” (web site, trailer).
In 1963, almost no one would have predicted that slacker Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) would ever amount to anything. The hard-drinking party boy from Wyoming was bounced out of Yale for his excessive boozing and penchant for fighting, behaviors that proved a major disappointment to his honors student girlfriend, Lynne (Amy Adams). In the wake of his unceremonious departure from the halls of the Ivy League, he returned home to take a job as an electrical lineman – and to resume his rowdy ways. And, when those reckless habits got him in trouble again – this time with the authorities – Lynne issued an ultimatum to clean up his act or else.
When faced with the prospect of losing the woman he loved, Cheney opted to settle down. In what many would call a miraculous turnaround, within a few years, he managed to land a position as a Congressional intern in Washington, DC, working in the office of Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (R-IL) (Steve Carell), an egocentric, Barnum-esque House member whose influence was steadily growing. The conservative, eminently demanding Congressman initially looked upon the sheepish new arrival somewhat contemptuously, but, as “Rummy” came to see what the quietly crafty Cheney was capable of, he developed an appreciation for the young apprentice, becoming a mentor and helping him climb the ladder of Washington insiders.
Before long, Cheney’s star quickly ascended. He moved up the ranks of power, joining Rumsfeld in the White House Chief of Staff’s office as his guru’s assistant. And, when Rumsfeld was later appointed Secretary of Defense in the administration of Gerald Ford (Bill Camp), Cheney succeeded his former boss as the President’s right-hand man. He was clearly on the move.
However, after Ford’s defeat in the 1976 presidential election, Cheney was out of a job. Nevertheless, the driven politico was not to be deterred; he used the opportunity to run for Congress as Wyoming’s delegate to the House of Representatives in 1978, a position to which he was elected and held for 10 years. From there he would go on to serve as Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush (John Hillner). And, after a hiatus during which he was CEO of the energy industry multinational Halliburton, he would become Vice President under President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), a mere heartbeat away from the highest office of the land.
Ironically, it was his own heart that would periodically betray him. He suffered five heart attacks between 1978 and 2010, along with other cardiovascular-related health issues. Somehow, though, he managed to keep going, despite the setbacks. Yet, considering the way he typically went about his business, one can’t help but wonder, metaphorically speaking, if the underhanded methods he routinely employed to expand his powers were responsible for taking such a physical toll on him.
Those underhanded methods were rooted in his skillfully practiced art of manipulation. He was a master at getting his way by tactfully convincing others about the supposed merits of his point of view and making them believe that these ideas were, in fact, their own, enabling them to take credit (or blame) for what they brought about. This was particularly true during his tenure as VP, leading Bush to believe that the former Texas governor was actually calling the shots.
Cheney’s artful maneuvering, especially when he was second in command, was made possible by a number of tactics based on radical (and some would say questionable) new interpretations of what was considered legally allowable. For instance, Cheney and his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) contended that, as Vice President, he was essentially answerable to no particular branch of government, leaving him free from oversight. His role as President of the Senate, for instance, separated him from being a member of the executive branch. At the same time, given that he did not actively participate in most Congressional activities, he wasn’t really part of the legislative branch, either. According to this interpretation of his role, such an “unaffiliated” status thus made him a free agent of sorts, allowing him to function largely unencumbered in the cracks between government branches, leaving him more or less unaccountable – and untouchable.
On top of this, Cheney managed to expand the power of the presidency (and, by extension, his own power, given the nature of his standard operating practices) by becoming an ardent advocate of “the unitary executive theory.” According to this theory, the President possesses the power to essentially rule as he sees fit, almost as if he were a monarch or dictator, enabling the chief executive to function in an almost Machiavellian way. After conferring with legal consultant John Yoo (Paul Yoo), who heartily gave the theory his blessing, Cheney embraced it and went on to convince Bush of its validity, leading the commander in chief to believe that he could take charge and govern according to his own prerogatives. Of course, given how the relationship between Bush and Cheney operated, the ideas that the President put forth were seldom his own, but, with the mandate he believed he possessed, he moved forward to further their implementation. Cheney thus had the means to get his agenda put into place without actually holding the title of chief executive, quite a coup if there ever were one.
To help cement his position, Cheney surrounded himself with advisors who zealously supported his views and who were effectively capable of countering any opposition put forth by Bush’s counselors. Among Cheney’s cronies were his old pal Rummy (in a return engagement as Secretary of Defense), as well as Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan), and the VP’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk). This formidable front proved useful during controversial discussions, such as those in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, in which proponents Cheney and company met opposition from skeptics like Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry). Those oppositional sentiments, which would later prove true, were squelched by the pile-on tactics of the VP’s posse, backed up by Cheney’s silver-tongued schmoozing to manipulate the commander in chief into embracing their views.
The unbridled ambition – some would say “ruthlessness,” as Rummy called it – were crucial to Cheney’s “success” in pushing and securing the elements of his agenda. And, in line with the principles of the unitary executive theory, he would wield that power when the need called for it. He thus got to experience what it meant to essentially operate with unchecked power, setting a precedent for the Bush administration and those of subsequent presidencies. There was virtually nothing to stop Cheney: Given how he functioned, he fundamentally changed how the executive branch works. And, because of this, he helped orchestrate a foreign policy based on principles that served his geopolitical vision and the goals of American business interests, such as those of his former company Halliburton, which, thanks to no-bid government contracts during and after the Iraq conflict, enabled the organization’s stock value to increase by 500 percent. But, in the wake of such developments, one can’t help but ask, are these the principles upon which American democracy was established? And what does that mean for the nation’s future? “Vice” doesn’t directly answer these questions, but it certainly gives us all much to ponder in its wake.
Cheney was so thorough in his methods that he figured out how to foster conditions conducive to his aims that covered all bases. This could be seen through such means as conducting focus groups to measure public opinions about policy issues for determining how to best spin them to the populace. He also believed in controlling the message by massaging the medium through which it was to be disseminated, an outcome made possible by funneling carefully crafted information through such select media outlets as Fox News, an opinion-driven cable channel he championed years before it came into being when it was first proposed by his old friend Roger Ailes (Kyle S. More). And, to obtain the legal considerations he required, he actively sought to befriend law professionals like an up-and-coming young attorney named Antonin Scalia (Sam Massaro) who would eventually become a Supreme Court associate justice (Matthew Jacobs). Such a comprehensive approach proved to be a powerful combination to achieve his goals. Cheney had to have been aware of the immense power at his disposal, and he freely made use of it.
However, even those who boldly make use of such power should be clear about how they use it. Failure to do so could lead to serious consequences, such as side effects that produce disappointments, delays and distortions of our objectives, some of which can be curiously metaphorical. If you doubt that, consider the personally ironic health issues experienced by a practitioner who became so proficient at implementing what could easily be considered “heartless” ways.
But is such a monodimensional, cold, unfeeling depiction of Cheney accurate? Through his family life, we see another side of the protagonist, someone who lovingly cared for his wife and daughters, Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary (Alison Pill). He believed in protecting them and looking after their well-being, so much so that he wouldn’t hesitate to draw the line whenever scrutiny of his home life arose. And he held fast to that view no matter what … except, of course, when political expediency came into play, at which point compromises suddenly became possible. This issue came up, for example, when his daughter Mary’s open homosexuality ran afoul of the conservative values he publicly embraced. He always said he would consider the question of her lifestyle off-limits, but even that position became negotiable when the need arose. (So much for meaning what one says.)
Given Cheney’s portrayal and the depiction of his typical ways of operating, it’s not difficult to imagine that the filmmakers received precious little cooperation from the picture’s subject. There’s even an on-screen statement to that effect at the outset, noting Cheney’s extremely secretive nature and the difficulty associated with obtaining definitive, authoritative information about the life of the VP. That’s where the film’s narrator, an enigmatic everyman named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), comes into play. As someone who claims to know Cheney in a highly unusual but very personal way – a relationship that goes unexplained until a critical juncture in the film – the story presented here in many ways essentially becomes Kurt’s take on Cheney’s life, a personal interpretation that would seem to be borne out by the facts but is not necessarily restricted to them thanks to the “insider” view the narrator provides.
Audiences are thus left to make up their own minds about the veracity and fairness of the depiction presented here, perspectives that are bound to vary widely based on one’s own beliefs about the man and, of course, one’s politics. To be sure, the story has a decidedly left-leaning slant to it, one that’s sure to delight the liberals in the audience but will almost assuredly stoke the ire of right-leaning conservatives. Interestingly enough, this schism is an issue that, given the current political climate, is just as relevant in evaluating this film as it is in going back and reviewing the historical record it depicts. Even more revealing is how we got to this point and how the protagonist wrangled events in the direction that produced these conditions more than most of us would probably give him “credit” for.
Director Adam McKay’s latest is a capably made film overall, though, admittedly, it’s not as good as I was hoping it would be (and definitely not on par with his previous work, “The Big Short” (2015)). In spite of its excellent performances by Bale, Carell and Rockwell, the production tries to do too much and often gets bogged down in the minutiae of American politics, causing some sequences to become a little snoozy. Also, McKay’s attempts at incorporating cinematic asides of an analogous nature – clever though they may be – don’t work quite as well in this film as they did in his predecessor picture. And then there’s the humor, which only lands about 50 percent of the time, another disappointment. Still, this picture is an insightful look into how Cheney helped orchestrate our current conditions by working the system on multiple fronts, effectively pulling the wool over the eyes of a sleeping public more preoccupied with having its boredom killed than watching out for its best interests. “Vice” thus makes for a potent cautionary tale we should all heed if we hope for matters to improve going forward – and to see what it means to give away our power.
Despite its shortcomings, “Vice” has been widely recognized in awards competitions thus far. The picture captured six Golden Globe Award nominations, including nods for best comedy, screenplay and director, as well as acting honors for Adams, Rockwell and Bale, who took home the prize for his efforts. In addition, Bale and Adams each earned Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for their respective lead and supporting performances. But the picture came up the biggest winner in the Critics Choice Award contest, landing nine nominations for best picture, acting ensemble, director, screenplay, editing, and hair and makeup, along with performance honors for Adams and two for Bale (for best actor and best actor in a comedy).
British politician Lord John Acton-Dalberg famously observed that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That admonition is perhaps one of the wisest statements ever uttered by someone in a governing position. It’s also one that aspiring leaders need to take to heart if they hope to be of greatest assistance and service to their constituency. One could argue that it was clearly ignored by the protagonist of this film, that it was, in fact, viewed as more of a green light than an insightful caution. We can only hope that those coming up through the ranks learn from it – and from the lessons of this picture – in terms of their leadership philosophies and practices. There’s a lot riding on it – and that’s the absolute truth.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Looking Back at the Silver Screen in 2018
Which films made the cut as last year’s top and bottom choices? Are your favorites included? Read about my selections in “The Best and Worst of 2018,” available by clicking here. And, if you’ve got a comment, share your thoughts with me (be civil, please!).
Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.