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Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

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Stephan James (left) and KiKi Layne are Fonny and Tish: a young couple in love in If Beale Street Could Talk.

There have been some adaptations of James Baldwin’s literature in the past, but I don’t think there’s ever been one ever to hit the big screen. Director Barry Jenkins brings If Beale Street Could Talk to the big screen and it’s quite the experience.

The film opens with a quote from James Baldwin of how most of America’s African-Americans were ‘born’ on the Beale Street of Memphis. The story opens in a prison just outside New York City in the late-1960’s with 19 year-old Tish visiting 22 year-old Fonny behind glass and communicating via telephone. She announces to Fonny she’s pregnant. Fonny is overjoyed and looks forward to being a loving husband and a good father once he’s proven innocent. The crime Fonny is charged for is rape of a Puerto Rican woman: Victoria Rogers. She knows Fonny didn’t do it because he was three blocks away with his friend Daniel when the rape happens. She knew he was arrested because of the racist Officer Bell.

Tish always knew Fonny was the right man for her. They were friends since childhood. Then months earlier Fonny wanted to take the friendship to the next level and date. She agreed. Both Fonny and Tish are people willing to work for a living. Fonny went to community college and had plans of going into woodworking. Tish found a job as a perfume saleswoman at a department store, which considered hiring a black woman in that role to be progressive.

Tish announces the news to her parents and sister. She’s very nervous about it, even though the family see Fonny in high regard. She first announces to her father, and he’s happy. Soon the mother Sharon and sister Ernestine are happy, though nervous as the trial is coming. Fonny’s family, who call him by his real name Alonzo, come to visit. The mother and Fonny’s sisters always had contempt for Tish. When the news is announced, Fonny’s father is happy, but the mother is the complete opposite. The sisters look down upon her and the highly-religious mother even goes as far as saying the child will be a child of sin because he’s conceived out of wedlock. The mother and sisters leave in disgust.

The film goes frequently from the present of the story to the past quite often. Tish reflects back to when they were walking the street and the feelings of love they had for each other. She reflects on the Mexican restaurant and the waiter Pedrocito that made them feel welcome there. She even remembers the time when she and Fonny were searching for an apartment. Fonny came across a loft being sold by a Jewish developer. She didn’t like the idea of a loft, but Fonny saw potential. They were both surprised that the owner had no problem with them being black, but he just loves seeing couples in love.

Soon Tish flashes back to the present. There is a trial they have to work on. The lawyer claims that this is a difficult case to manage, but they feel this white lawyer just doesn’t care about justice for a black man like Fonny. Tish’s and Fonny’s father team up to do illegal trading in order to raise the right money for Fonny’s case. Victoria Rogers returned to Puerto Rico because she couldn’t handle the reminders of her rape in NYC. Sharon has a mission to go to Puerto Rico to get Victoria to come back to New York and testify for Fonny’s innocence, but it will be very costly. In the meantime, the months add up and the child inside Tish is developing. Tish goes to see Fonny again at the prison, but Fonny has gone through months of torture there. He wants to get out so he can live the life he was meant to live and love Tish.

Memories go back to the harder memories. The first is when Fonny is reunited with his friend Daniel. Daniel had just come out of prison for grant theft auto; the result of a plea bargain after being arrested for marijuana possession. Daniel tells him how it’s hell in prison and how he knows how racist the justice system is. She also flashes back to when she and Fonny were just shopping at a grocery store. Tish is harassed by a man and Fonny throws him out. The throwout is witnessed by Officer Bell, who things that Fonny has committed aggravated assault. However the white storeowner comes out and vouches for Fonny that Officer Bell lets him go, but not without that look of the desire to arrest in his eye.

Sharon did it. She was able to get enough money to confront Victoria Rogers and convince her to come back to New York for the sake of Fonny’s freedom. Victoria’s long stay in Puerto Rico is what’s delaying the trial. Victoria is not happy to see Sharon. The rape is the whole reason she left NYC and has no plans to go back. It’s too upsetting for her. Sharon tries pleading to Victoria to come back and give the true story for the sake of Fonny’s innocence, but that just causes Victoria to break down mentally and emotionally. Sharon returns back to NYC and the trial is still delayed. Tish gives birth to the baby in a bathtub with Sharon’s help while Fonny is still in prison. It’s a boy. As the wait drags on, Fonny accepts a plea deal. Years later, Tish and Alonzo Jr. visit Fonny in jail as they all hope for Fonny’s eventual release.

James Baldwin has been known to be an outspoken civil rights leader as well as a renowned author and poet. Racism is one of his biggest themes in his works. The film which is based on his novel of the same title definitely focuses on racism. It’s set in the mid- to late-1960’s just after more civil rights for blacks had been championed. However it was still a struggle as a lot of rights were limited, a lot of racial riots were happening, and many wrongful arrests were taking place. The novel and the film give a depiction of what it was like at the time. Especially with a black man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit as seen through his pregnant fiancee. The film also shows the hopes and dreams of a young black couple in love. They will have a future previous generations before them couldn’t have, but it would still take a fight. Very often, you hear Tish and others having negative things to say about white people. Even having a mistrusting attitude towards them. Those who saw the documentary I Am Not Your Negro will know about the mistrust towards white people had back then. I’m sure it was a mistrust shared by many African Americans at the time and we hear it echoed in the characters, mostly from Tish

However the novel and film are about more than that. It’s about undying love through hard times. Tish knows Fonny is innocent and she and her family team up to get Fonny free in time for the birth of their son. We see that Fonny is a good honest man. She’s known Fonny since she was a child. She knows Fonny would never hurt anyone like that. When they started dating months before the arrest, she knew right there and then she was the right man for her. We feel that love in the film. Interesting how a gay author like James Baldwin can deliver a better sense of love between a man and a woman than most straight authors. The novel and film however isn’t all ‘whites are bad’ and ‘all blacks are good.’ That meeting between Tish’s family and Fonny’s family showed a certain friction. While the fathers got along well, the mother’s, especially Fonny’s, looked down upon Tish’s family and the sisters had the same snooty attitude. It’s possible that scene was meant to send a message about how certain African Americans aren’t all unified or there’s a superficiality between certain types.

The film does a very good job in adapting the novel, but it does more than that. Barry Jenkins adds his own unique flair to the film. One flair he has in the film just like his previous success Moonlight is the inclusion of a lot of music. The film is a good mix of original score and songs from years past. It fits the movie well. However one thing he does that’s different from Moonlight is he includes a lot of imagery to set the theme of the time. He also includes a lot of scenes where many of the characters involved in the story have their own shots where they face the camera standing still. That adds to the film. Also what Jenkins does is during many scenes, he slows the moment down and softens it so that one can get a feel of the moment. That happens many times during scenes with Fonny and Tish, the scene with Tish working the perfume counter, and the scene with Fonny and Daniel. Sometimes it’s half-muted and we hear Tish’s narration, but we get a very good sense of the situation. I think Jenkins made some good choices in making the film.

Barry Jenkins does it again. It’s hard to say if it’s as good as Moonlight, but the film is nothing short of excellent. He not only plays out the novel on film, he allows us to feel the story. I feel James Baldwin would be very proud. KiKi Layne was very good as Tish as was Stephan James as Fonny. The whole cast was excellent, but the standout was Regina King as the mother. She really did an excellent job as the mother-in-law going out of her way for Fonny’s innocence. For the technical, James Laxton did a great job with the cinematography, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders made the right editing moves and Nicholas Britell delivered a great score that fit with the film and blended in with the tracks of past songs.

If Beale Street Could Talk is more than about racism and social injustice. It’s also about the undying love of two. It’s a love no prison system or injustice can destroy.

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Grey Cup Preview

Grey Cup

On Sunday November 24th, the 101st Grey Cup will be contested at Mosaic Stadium at Regina’s Taylor Field. The game promises excitement as it will pit the Saskatchewan RoughRiders against the Hamilton Tiger Cats. But what’s in store for this year?

 

This year’s Grey Cup is not a milestone Grey Cup like last year. And unfortunately for a Vancouverite like myself, BC won’t be playing like two years ago. Nevertheless the game promises excitement. The defending champions will not be returning. Neither will the teams that finished at the top of their division during the regular season be playing. Instead it’s the two underdogs from both divisions.

The game also brings a return to Mosaic Stadium for the third and last time. Mosaic Stadium has previously hosted in 1995 and 2003, back when it was still called Taylor Field. Normally it seats about 33,000 people but it’s expandable to 55,000. As I said earlier, this will be the last year Mosaic Stadium will host the Grey Cup. Back in July of last year, it was decided that a new staudium was needed for Regina and its Roughriders. The new open-air stadium is expected to be completed by 2017 with an estimated cost of $280 million and is planned for Evraz Place. This will make it a break with a 107-year tradition with Taylor Field being home of the Roughriders.

The entertainers at the Cup are expected to please the crowds. The Saskatoon-based group The Sheepdogs are to perform in the pre-game show, Serena Ryder will sing the national anthem and Hedley will be doing the halftime show. The Roughriders will spend $14 million on temporary seating to increase the capacity to 50,000. Corporate boxes and concessions will also be added. A new 60-foot wide LED screen an scoreboard will be added to the northeast end zone while a 55-foot wide LED screen and scoreboard will be brought to the west grandstand. Now time to check out the two contenders:

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

Being the host city of a Grey Cup has been a lucky thing for its team for the third year in a row. Two years ago when Vancouver hosted, the Lions qualified and won. Last year when the Skydome was hosting, the Argonauts qualified and won. This year luck is on the side of the RoughRiders. The regular season went well with 11 wins and 7 losses, placing them second in the West just behind Calgary at the end of the season. They were able to score a win against every team they played. Even leading into the playoffs, the RoughRiders had the advantage as both teams they faced–the Lions and the Stampeders– they’ve had at least one win against. Their play experience payed off as they beat the Lions 29-25 and beat the Stampeders 35-13.

HAMILTON TIGER CATS

They came in as a team with small expectations and they now find themselves playing in the Grey Cup. This year was adifficult year for the TiCats as they were not only no longer playing in the Ivor Wynne Stadium but were playing in the Alumni Stadium in Guelph as they were awaiting their new home stadium. They actually started their 2013 season off slow winning only one of their first five games. Almost echoing the BC Lions in 2011. However head coach Kent Austin was able to turn things around and they’ve won nine of their last thirteen regular season games. Like the RoughRiders, they too had at least one regular season win against the playoff opponents they faced and they materialized too beating the Alouettes 19-16 in overtime and the defending Grey Cup champion Argonauts 36-24.

THE BIG GAME AND MY PREDICTION

Coming to the game, my prediction is pretty much solid. I predict the Roughriders to win scoring double whatever Hamilton gets. It’s no doubt of the two teams, Saskatchewan has showed the most muscle this year. They have the strongest offence in the CFL and a very strong defence too. On top of it, Saskatchewan has beaten the TiCats both times they played them this season. It’s not to say the TiCats can pull an upset. Underrated teams have come from behind in the past. Plus keep in mind the losses to Saskatchewan were part of the first five games where the TiCats struggled. We have a whole new set of TiCats since so Saskatchewan should take note if they want to win. I still stand by my prediction that the RoughRiders will win but that doesn’t mean they’re not vulnerable.

So there you go. The preview for the 101st Grey Cup. Kickoff is slated for 6:00pm EST which would actually be 5:00pm in Regina. May the best team win!