Too Good to Be True: The Magical Poor Folk of Beale Street and Roma

Abe Beame explores the similar approaches of the recent films of two distinctive directors.
By    February 21, 2019

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You can find Abe Beame posted up in front of B.B. King’s.

A few months ago, in the immediate afterglow of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, with awards season in full swing at the movies and the holiday season in full swing in New York City, I wrote a piece about the function of hospitality in the film. What I conveniently left out is that Roma had left me somewhat cold. Then, a few weeks later I was watching Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and walked out with a similarly lukewarm impression. Before watching their latest films, and really even now, I would rank Cuaron and Jenkins as two of my favorite directors. They had made two films stocked with references to some of my favorite films and filmmakers; Jenkins’ film had adapted one of my favorite writers. On paper these are movies I should’ve loved, but didn’t. By my estimation, both films tackled the same challenge and both were largely unsuccessful in meeting said challenge. The question is how should we write about people we love, respect and admire? How do we do them and their causes justice, and when we lionize them, how does it affect the stories we are trying to tell about them?

Cuaron is the most ambitious working director we have. Part of the infamous “Three Amigos” of Mexico with directors Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro, he’s a dabbler in the Kubrick model, a jack and master of all trades. He made the brilliant dystopian masterpiece Children of Men, the formally unbelievable Gravity and the best fucking Harry Potter installment. Roma appears to be a return to his roots, simply because it is Earthbound and specifically Mexican. But while his last Mexican film, the breakout Y Tu Mama Tambien was a coming of age sex romp indebted to Pedro Almovodar and specifically Jules and Jim, Roma is subdued and serious, a blend of Italian Neo-Realism and French New Wave (It’s no coincidence Yalitzia Aparacio’s character is named Cleo).

Before I could even begin to reconsider the message of Roma I had to reconcile with its medium. I had seen the film the first time in a limited engagement at IFC in a sold out movie theater. As I selected the Netflix channel on the “Smart” TV in my living room a question plagued me: Was this how Cuaron intended for this film to be viewed? The pre-release of Roma had been so limited he had to know this wasn’t how a majority of the viewing public was going to see his film. Cuaron won an Oscar for Best Director with his last effort. If he had wanted to find major studio money and a wide awards season theatrical release, surely he could’ve gotten it elsewhere. Was Netflix the entire point of the film? Had they given the film a theatrical release to simply meet the Academy’s standards of what constitutes as a proper film, and had I betrayed Cuaron’s vision by going to a theater to watch it?

I didn’t find a real drop off in the rewatch. Roma is full of absolutely stunning compositions that shine on whatever screen you watch them on. I don’t know if this would’ve held true for other great, demanding awards season movies that may come later, but as someone who isn’t fluent in Spanish, I wasn’t able to two screen during the film which I would imagine is the danger of presenting an important movie on Netflix. However, even still, I had to struggle to pay attention to Roma. Not because it’s on Netflix, not because it isn’t visually stunning, but because it’s boring.

“Cleo” has been a figure in Cuaron’s life and work he’s spent years considering and revering. There’s a scene early in Y Tu Mama Tambien (a screenplay he wrote with his brother Carlos), where a phone is ringing in Cuaron proxy Diego Luna’s character’s beautiful massive house. A small maid named “Leo” of indigenous descent walks upstairs with a plate of food as the phone rings. She walks into a room where young Diego Luna is lounging on a couch listening to music, directly next to a ringing portable phone he ignores. The maid has made him a tostada with “his favorite cheese”. She answers the phone, it’s for Luna who she hands the phone to, ruffles his hair affectionately, calls him darling, and walks out of the frame and the movie. It’s a detail supporting Luna’s privilege and coddling from every angle, but by considering the scene from Leo’s point of view, it’s a lack of consideration, a thanklessness Cuaron withholds from her in Roma. It’s a few seconds long but more interesting than the entire movie that follows it up.

Leo returns during an aside delivered by the films omniscient narrator, one of the many tricks culled from Truffaut. As the trio wind through the Mexican countryside they pass Tepelmeme, a Oaxacan town where Leo is from. Luna’s character reflects on passing through her hometown, her backstory and relationship to him (“He called her Mommy till he was four years old”). It’s a rare sentimental, introspective moment in the noisy, hormonally charged film.

In Roma, Cleo is a cypher. She never raises her voice and displays little to no agency in a movie ostensibly about her. Roma is about class and different forms of toxic masculinity. Cuaron’s script loads her up with crosses to bare. Her very work is its own monotonous challenge, but there’s also a pregnancy she ends up losing tragically and the rejection she suffers as a result of getting pregnant. Through it all, Cleo is stoic, kind to the family she works for, patient with the scumbag who ditches her, she does her work with the hint of a smile and quiet dignity.  

There’s nothing wrong with building a movie around a good woman of few words, but there isn’t much to draw us to her as a character or illuminate why her struggle is important. She rarely laughs (Roma is one of the most humorless movies I’ve ever seen, a trait it shares with If Beale Street Could Talk), never complains about her work or the way she is treated, never talks back. Her suffering is the point of her character and she is imbued with mystical, Christlike powers of acceptance as she faces it down. There’s condescension in Cuaron’s naked deification of Cleo. There isn’t much of an indication that he truly understands her beyond what she does, and very little for the audience to latch onto with her as a recognizable, flawed human being. It’s why Roma’s best moments are the surprising ones. A detour is taken late in the film to confront the baby father while he’s training in a martial arts class in an open field. It’s an opportunity for Cuaron to be virtuoistic with a large complicated set piece that ends in disappointment.

I’ve always loved James Baldwin. As a writer and as a thinker he’s one of the few people who leap off the screen when you watch old PBS Civil Rights Documentaries as a guy who could seamlessly step into the politics, sexual politics and culture of today. He’s funny, raw and honest. He was a black gay genius when it was illegal to be black or gay, and a threat to national security to be both of those things and a genius. But beyond Baldwin as a monolithic figure, Baldwin the giant of letters, Baldwin the Civil Rights leader, I was drawn to his humanity. An ugly, poor, misunderstood outcast who openly, nakedly wanted to be loved. So I was confused when Barry Jenkins announced he was adapting If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s miles from Baldwin’s best work. I’m partial to what I perceive as his more personally felt novels like Another Country or Giovanni’s Room. Particularly coming off Moonlight these stories would’ve made more sense for Jenkins. Beale Street feels like a piece of agitprop. An article Baldwin read in the Times he decided to render in fiction.

Beale Street was published in ’74 and set in the early ’70s. On the surface there’s a plot. A young woman named Tish gets pregnant as her boyfriend is falsely accused of rape by a cop who doesn’t appreciate his attitude. Then he’s fed into a system that has been engineered to keep him in jail owning a bum rap. That’s about it. The success of the novel relies on the beauty and poetry in Baldwin’s words. On these merits it succeeds some of the time.

The tone is all high drama, operatic tragedy. Romeo and Juliet is a clear point of reference. The star-crossed lovers are actually name checked in the novel. It’s anthropological in scope. Baldwin takes us to church with Fonny and Tish, we see the deleterious effects of the lowered expectations that come with being a minority in the New York City public school system, pushing Fonny to be a carpenter when he wants to express himself through art. We’re there as Fonny and Tish fall in love, get pregnant, go to jail. We meet members of their community who we’ll learn of in the abstract, this one preaching in church became a junky, that one singing in the choir ended up crazy and homeless. But the result of this light, omniscient touch in the slim novel is we lose much of the humanity, the all important journeys between point a and point b. The characters are symbols employed to make a point and it shows.

In Baldwin’s defense this was a time when these stories simply weren’t being told. The problem comes with the expectations we walk into Beale Street with today. At the time of writing Beale Street, Baldwin was speaking to an audience with sympathies that lay largely with police and the system. The presumption that the jailed are guilty and our system works properly and protects us all fairly and equally was Baldwin’s point of attack. He had to fight for the dignity of a young woman carrying a child out of wedlock and her wrongly convicted lover society deemed a deviant worthy of a long prison sentence. In 2019 we know better. We come to the film with the assumption of the young couple’s dignity and mistrustful of a malicious, stupid, racist system. With that point understood before the credits role, there isn’t a ton left to say or accomplish in the story without beats meant to surprise or complicate a very straightforward narrative.  

Which is why it’s harder to excuse Jenkins, who took four years to develop this film but releases it at a time when if you really want to see the visceral horror of systemic racism you need only open Youtube on your phone. In the Summer of 2014, when Jenkins began this project, Eric Garner was choked to death by a cop named Daniel Pantaleo on the street in Staten Island. It was a shockingly public video, and coupled with the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Maryland, Laquan McDonald in Chicago — you obviously can’t see this but I just took off my glasses and clenched the bridge of my nose because I got a migraine trying to figure out how to relate the enormity of all the innocent black children and adults who have been killed by police just in the last four years. This is the environment that I imagine inspired Jenkins to bring this story to the screen. How can you do justice to such  depressing, heartbreaking, exhausting issue with a film?

Well, Ava Duvernay’s 13th, about the injustice of the prison Industrial complex was a start. As was the Kalief Browder series, also on Netflix. Just on the screen this year was the weird hybrid of high school coming of age film and police brutality melodrama The Hate U Give, a film with its own issues but one that sets a disturbing and relevant story in present day. And Spike Lee’s BlaKKKlansmen which looks to the 70s, when Beale Street was published for a true story of the police infiltrating American racism, two Oakland staged films in Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs’ Blindspotting, and Boots Riley’s brilliant satire Sorry to Bother You, which frames systemic racism as the logical byproduct of a ruthless Capitalism. 

The film aches for Fonny and Tish, you can feel Jenkins feeling for them as avatars of the untold millions who didn’t have anti lynching laws, or DNA evidence or the Innocence Project or an iPhone camera to shed light on the injustices they have suffered. But it isn’t just an excess of devotion to Fonny and Tish the film suffers from, it’s Baldwin. Jenkins is fanatically faithful to a text that doesn’t translate well to film. The novel is used less like a guide then it is a screenplay. Most, if not all of the dialogue is ripped wholecloth from the novel. This isn’t meant to throw dirt on the great James Baldwin’s name or incredible talent, but perhaps something Jenkins should’ve taken into consideration when adapting him. Cuaron for instance, took the bones of JG Ballard’s plot and threw out the rest when he adapted Children of Men.

Jenkins adaptation of a book that sings in its pages when it does manage to sing is far too loyal, perhaps in deference to Baldwin but to the great detriment of the resulting film. Because Beale Street is an issue novel it feels like characterization takes a backseat to predicament. Baldwin potentially didn’t want to cloud Fonny and Tish’s story larded with the excess of detail, quirk and humanity that makes for compelling character. Jenkins should have recognized that.

Like Cleo, there just isn’t much to Fonny and Tish beyond the circumstances they have to endure. They’re mostly just sweet, devoted, humble, graceful people. I don’t know if this can actually be attributed to David Foster Wallace but in James Ponsoldt’s great The End of the Tour, Jason Siegel’s Wallace is teaching a writing class and a student tells him he wants his characters to be smart and funny. Wallace simply replies, have them do and say smart and funny things. The film gives us so little of that to hold on to. I assume Fonny’s name is a joke on Baldwin’s part because the homophone is as close as Fonny ever comes to humor.

The best character in Beale Street is Tish’s sister Ernestine. There’s a great exchange in an early scene where Tish’s family informs Fonny’s family that Tish is pregnant with the incarcerated Fonny’s child. Ernestine steals the scene and commands the room, sending razor sharp jabs of acerbic wit that made for the only laughter I got out of the movie. Then the scene ends and her role ends with it. It feels like a missed opportunity.

I don’t know if Baldwin or Jenkins or Cuaron intends for Fonny or Tish or Cleo to be smart or funny, which is a shame because they’re capable of writing characters who are. Moonlight is another sad film centered around a quiet and morose protagonist. But its a film with more life and movement. Chiron is more than his orientation and the shit he has to endure. He’s a complicated, very imperfect and compelling subject, and crucially Jenkins surrounds him with fascinating, complicated people. For instance, there’s Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning turn as Juan, a conflicted paternal figure cum drug dealer who is warm, soulful and kind as he peddles the death destroying Chiron’s mother. It’s these complicated dynamics that challenge us and deny us the easy ways out and good/evil binaries.

One of the best scenes is a lyrical Jenkins insertion that reminds me of Kevin making his Chef’s Special in Moonlight. It’s after securing the lease for a loft on Bank street when Fonny and Tish start celebrating ebulliently on 6th Avenue. It’s one of the few times the film allows itself to release the tight grip it has on the tone of somber despair or solemn romance and has some fun. Jenkins is at once a more polished and confident film maker with Beale street, but has taken a step back in his subject matter and what he is asking of his audience. And while his style is more self assured and fearless, he’s in danger of his paralyzingly gorgeous photography sucking all air out of his filmmaking. Like Roma, Beale street is full of jaw droppers, but at times it can overwhelm the material and if he keeps trending towards swelling scores and characters that stare into a shot for long stretches he could become repetitive and indulgent.

It’s obvious that Cuaron and Jenkins have a deep well of respect and admiration for their characters, but they lazily place their protagonists on pedestals that ultimately deny them of their humanity and our interest. There’s nothing wrong with lionizing the nanny who helped raised you. For having a reverence for those poor souls that came before us, the millions crushed by systemic racism who never had the opportunity to direct great films and win Oscars. But when we make art about them it’s important to compartmentalize. To not to lose their humanity in adulation. Otherwise we run the risk of turning these people into remote symbols, saints and gods, and the impact of their stories are lost in their impossibility.

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