Thursday 21 February 2019

Article: Belonging on Beale Street

Forgive me for the weasel words at the start of this. I cannot remember for the life of me the many people who state that when writing about cultural commentary on media that it shouldn’t be personal. Apologises on this opening which is something that attribute to me and what I’ve seen. 
On one of the photography forums that I frequent, a woman made a post asking about what could be done to celebrate and encourage more female photographers on the site. Photography like so many creative endeavours can be considered top-heavy when it comes to gender, although of course there are many variables that should be considered. Almost straight away the inquisition came. Prods and pokes at a relatively harmless question. Nothing said held out and out aggression, but many replies held a clear defensiveness. The response that struck me more than anything was by one gentleman who stated:
“Call me biased as a middle-aged white male, who has not transgendered, and has all his limbs and hopefully faculties, but I really don’t even think about these things until people decide that the world is” unfair” in their eyes. Can we maybe just look at the quality of images.......?”
Isn’t this the sticking point? The crux of the argument? The problem? That the person of such a description can brush off the idea of celebrating a different group’s foray into creativity because they do not have to think about it? That because they are usually considered the target market, they can dictate the themes and hold the gates on what is worthy? Suffice to say, I ducked out of my forum lurking at that point. You can always see where such debates go. It was much better for me to go to the movies, another medium which suffers from similar trappings. Just go to any forum debating Captain Marvel…
Often the critique thrown at certain black films often sounds similar to the “I don’t see colour" argument. Not everyone will get something out of Films such as Get Out (2017) and Moonlight (2017), but the dismissive nature which sometimes comes from people when they observe such films, consciously or not, highlight their dismissiveness of racial identity. There have been films like Black Panther (2018) before and watching the many MCU entries help establish that point. But there’s rarely any colour represented films like Black Panther and this is where the discourse becomes fractured. In the same way, black audiences helped the likes of a problematic racial sitcom such as Love Thy Neighbour become popular, the latest glut of black-led movies have staunch support for the simple reason that in not seeing the racial aspect in such features is to erase swathes of people's viewpoints alongside it too. In the same way, a female photographer may have a different stance on how to create images thematically but can be ignored under a certain presence of “quality”. A white audience member can view movie concerns from particular viewpoints, safe in the knowledge that their next film is merely around the corner. For minority viewers, they have not been able to. Due to this, as a black audience member, I may now feel that I can be quick to dismiss viewpoints if I consider the commentator would be softer on a “white” movie for having the same faults. 
Berry Jenkins’ tales of unrequited love can and have been criticised by people and of course we can all do this, however, I would be interested in how many people who dismiss Moonlight would be doing so in contrast to its particular blend of unapologetically black queer cinema. As if there’s that many. The same would go for Medicine for Melancholy (2008) a black romance which riffs on the mumblecore movement, a group of films not particularly known for its diverse demographic. 
Jenkins’ If Beale Street Can Talk is very much more of the same when we consider his body of work. A matter of fact drama based on a novel by James Baldwin. With the inspiration of Wong Kar-Wai clearly in mind, the film ebbs and flows in a fashion which may be unfamiliar to those who expect a more typical sense of narrative structure. Characters we expect to reappear, do not, yet their actions and thoughts linger long after they leave the screen. Much like Jenkins’ previous works, this is not unexpected. For a viewer like myself, whose enjoyment of more typical modern features is at a slight point of contempt, Beale Street’s way is warmly met by me.
Bathed in the beautiful, warming glow of James Laxton’s cinematography, Jenkins captures the thoughts and emotions of his character's feelings in tightly framed, richly light close-ups. Shots so detailed they point out the needless endeavour of 3D or Secret Cinema to provide immersion. When Nicholas Britell's score soared, my tear ducts often swelled, as is Jenkins ability to deliver us in front of these simple characters leading complicated lives. The film explores the problematic themes of redlining, rape, and racism in America, yet it never preaches. It’s emotional moments never feel like they are pandering. The film’s expressions of love never feel cloying or plastic. 
The beauty in Jenkins work, for an admirer like myself, lies in his ability to show us lives that are being lived with no need for huge telegraphed scenes of sensation, yet plenty of moments to provide reflection. When we observe the intimate moments of our lead characters making love for the first time, it should be noted of how black male sexuality is captured as not only an expression of love but as a moment of vulnerability. The black male without aggression, something that could possibly be missed by viewers as it is an element which still feels alien to them. 
If Beale Street Could Talk, did not hold the same immediate emotional response as Moonlight did. The latter film lodged a lump in my throat so large, I felt it may never have left. However, Beale Street firmly establishes Jenkins as the most important black filmmaker for a viewer such as me. Being a sensitive soul, it is unsurprising that I hold a soft spot for many emotional and expressive features, but it is with Jenkins for the third time running, that I have watched a film of an artist and felt my chest would burst. The third time that a filmmaker has opened a part of myself and explored particular emotions that I myself have grappled with. It’s not to say that other filmmakers have not done this. They do. Just not like this. 
The point of this ramble, which has taken me too long to write and you perhaps too long to read, is that Jenkins’ framing of people of colour in Beale Street, like his other features, or even Charles Burnett's, highlight and frame western black cinema in a way that many other white filmmakers would quite simply be uninterested in. The quality is there. What he’s doing with it is celebrating us.