From Beale Street to Wakanda

2018 was a banner year for Black storytelling

Movies Features black film
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From Beale Street to Wakanda

We’re still living in a world where you’ll run into the occasional pigheaded person who insists they don’t see race. (Is it carried on the Y chromosome, like red-green color-blindness?) Do those afflicted watch Crazy Rich Asians and just see an episode of Dallas? 2018 must have been a really confusing year at the movies for them.

When every YouTube algorithm steers me (a guy subscribed to ContraPoints, for the love of God) toward videos titled things like, “Why is every SJW character a Mary Sue?,” it becomes exhausting to keep having to argue, over and over again, that there’s value for us, the audience, in promoting diversity in our entertainment. There is value for me, a white man, in having the option to go see films where an Asian-American father rescues his daughter via the internet or a Black man fights for labor rights in a cruel funhouse mirror version of our already absurd late capitalist world. Black filmmakers made 2018 a case study in why this is so. They did it by making lots of really excellent movies that you should watch.

We listened to Beale Street this time

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James Baldwin called If Beale Street Could Talk one of his strangest novels when he was done writing it. It was a flop when it was released in 1974, some argue quite convincingly because it focused on the enduring pain of the Black American experience in those years immediately after the Civil Rights movement had made substantial gains and white America wanted to consider the matter settled.

Maybe audiences were more ready to listen to that kind of a lament in the post-Obama era, in a time when Baldwin’s voice has been joined by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and when N.K. Jemisin’s literature is being published in a world where Donald Trump is president. Even if our current moment didn’t already invest it with urgency, director Barry Jenkins commits fully to the story of a young Black woman in ’70s Harlem and her struggle to keep her family together in the face of a system designed to destroy it. In doing so, he’s simultaneously made a love story for the ages and a film his cinematic successors should study very closely if they ever want to adapt a literary novel.

The movie’s opening scenes take one bombshell announcement and show every part of its fallout. Nineteen-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) has become pregnant by her incarcerated boyfriend, Fonny (Stephan James), who languishes in prison for a crime he could not possibly have committed. This is a story that happens every day in America. Jenkins makes it seem as epic and portentous as a Greek tragedy—the story carried by Tish’s voice, the rawness of each character’s emotions visible right behind the brave faces they’re showing to one another. So many novel-to-film adaptations fail miserably at precisely this trick. Jenkins nails the internal turmoil of the entire principal cast in the first few minutes of the movie and doesn’t let up.

We follow Tish as flashbacks fill in the origins of her love story with Fonny and reveal to us the full, pointless cruelty of his incarceration. A Puerto Rican woman, the wife of a rich white man who turned her womb into a factory and then discarded her, is pressured into IDing Fonny as her attacker by a white cop with an axe to grind with Fonny. It can’t show us Fonny’s suffering in prison, but it can invest it with the dread of Tish’s imagination after she eavesdrops on a chilling conversation between Fonny and his recently freed friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), in which he reflects on the horror of prison.

This scene, which is just two men talking in whispers, is still one of the most brutal of the year. The fear and trauma in the wake of that inhumanity are unsparingly clear without having to show the source to us. The fear is enough.

If Beale Street Could Talk asks how something as pure as love and as fragile as a family can stand up to injustice that stultifies, lies to, schemes against and chokes, all while laying the blame on its victims. Just the fact Tish and Fonny are still holding hands is a triumph.

And a reminder: Regina King is also in it, and Jenkins uses her awesome talent to its fullest.

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Look this woman up on IMDB.

Black Panther remakes the box office in Wakanda’s image.

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If a heartbreakingly beautiful indictment of America’s mistreatment of the Black community sounds too serious for you, or a wild-as-hell surrealist journey into labor rights like Sorry to Bother You seems too challenging, or you don’t like watching Spike Lee make a fool of the KKK in BlacKkKlansman, there was still an inescapably popular offering for you in Black Panther, which closed out 2018 as the number one box office draw and the best-performing Marvel movie in a year that included freaking Infinity War.

Paste’s review went deep into every reason this was a great movie, from its compelling villain to its unique Afrofuturist aesthetic to Ryan Coogler deploying the same sure hand during the action sequences that he did during Creed. Paste intern Adreon Patterson gave us a close look at what the movie meant to him as a Black American male.

What it means for everybody else, I argue, is that audiences all over the world got to be transported by an action film told to us from an Afro-centric perspective for once. That, ultimately, was the value of all these movies beyond the simple fact they were damn good. Part of the reason they were novel and entertaining and affecting was that they gave us points of view that all too often have been completely absent from Hollywood’s offerings.

I’ve written a lot in this space about lack of representation, about how Hollywood should learn from the successes that prove audiences’ hunger for new stories, and about how I’m concerned a lack of narrative diversity erases the vulnerable from history. This past year, audiences saw black characters fight everything from war rhinos to late capitalism, from white supremacy to the cruelty of the carceral state. One of the most hotly anticipated movies of the coming year is the sophomore effort from the director who made “the Sunken Place” a part of the lexicon.

Nobody is going to argue we’re anywhere near an ideal level of representation. But it’s funny how, in a year with more of these perspectives, we seem to have gotten really good movies out of the bargain, don’t you think?


Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste Movies. He’s also been published in The Escapist, Colombia Reports and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and you can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.

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