The older couple exiting the theater in front of me was pissed. Outraged. As they ducked their gray heads together in conversation, confabulating, commiserating, I caught bits of their heated conversation. “We’ve got to do something about the injustice,” she said breathlessly. “It’s terrible!”
Indeed, it is terrible. Everybody is getting woke these days. And maybe this apparently well-heeled elderly white couple will do something about the injustice. Maybe they will.
The movie we’d just witnessed was director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk. It tells the tragic love story of a young black couple in 1970s Harlem who are split apart when ‘Fonny’ (Stephan James) is jailed on a bogus rape charge, leaving pregnant Tish (KiKi Layne) and her family to fight desperately for his release.
In his Oscar-winning debut Moonlight (2016), Jenkins revealed a level of sophistication and subtlety uncommon in so young a filmmaker, painting a portrait of human alienation and connection that transcended the issues it dealt with so poetically — race, sexuality, addiction, class. With an intimacy that is excruciating to behold, Moonlight draws us in close to its characters, a gesture of trust that allows us to see and feel their lives from the inside out.
I experienced some of that trust and intimacy in Jenkins’ new film, especially in the fraught domestic scenes of Tish and Fonny’s families as they navigate the scandal that seizes them. In a stunning scene that captures at once Jenkins’ best and worst tendencies, Tish and her parents — the wonderful Regina King and Colman Domingo — invite Fonny’s distraught family to their apartment in order to reveal the pregnancy.
Fonny’s mother, Mrs. Hunt, is an embittered, pious Christian of the condemn-thee-to-hell variety, and she responds to the news of the pregnancy with a furious rancor — accusing Tish of harlotry and ruining her son’s life, and cursing the baby to shrivel and die in her womb. For this outburst she receives from her husband (Michael Beach) not simply a slap but a full-tilt belt across the face that sends her collapsing to the floor.
So much for turn the other cheek. Bitch had it coming.
The problem here is not the portrayal of domestic violence, which is a social reality; it’s the way Jenkins so meticulously stacks the deck against Mrs. Hunt that there is an undeniable thrill of vengeance when her hateful Christian tirade is cut short by a blow to the head that knocks her shitless. The scene might have been played as a tragedy — as a complex moment of fear and confusion — but instead it feels whitewashed, shuffled off-screen and put away as a bit of necessary violence in the face of the real injustice of religious bigotry.
Worse yet is the emotional bait provided by Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), the young white cop who falsely fingers Fonny for raping a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios). In the cinematic pantheon of aggravated racist cops, it’s hard to imagine a more sneering, rat-like, lip-smacking, hate-driven, thimble-dicked cracker-ass son-of-a-bitch than Officer Bell, whose sniveling mug is flashed on screen at various moments for the audience’s cathartic session of Two Minutes Hate.
Man, I wanted to step into the screen and kill that pig. I mean, if that’s what a racist looks like, thank God I’m not a racist. I’m off the hook. We really should do something about the injustice! Just, please, don’t mention the issues of class, and power, and endemic poverty in entrenched economic systems. That’s the stuff that got Martin Luther King Jr. shot.
This, then, is where Jenkin’s movie reveals a bit of bad faith: By pandering to the most extreme stereotypes of racism and bigotry, he fails at once to trust his audience and his art. He says: Here’s the good guys — who are über-good, and really good-looking, and super warm-hearted — and here’s the bad guys, who flatter our pieties about ourselves by appearing as two-dimensional monsters on screen, as easy to dismiss as they are to condemn.
This is a disservice, ultimately, to James Baldwin, who is not only one of America’s greatest writers but also one of its most complex, insightful, downright dangerous explicators of the “race problem” in this country. Baldwin’s anguish over American racism was always informed by a deep and complex humanity — a kind of cosmic understanding that plumbed the depths of our collective sickness, and the system in which it was perpetuated. Baldwin didn’t just expose the face of racism; he exposed its soul.
Jenkins better taps Baldwin’s artistry — and, in turn, his own — in a scene between Fonny and his friend Daniel (the excellent Brian Tyree Henry). Daniel, recently sprung from a two-year stint in prison, is explaining the mind-numbing horrors of what he saw when he was locked up. “The white man has got to be the devil,” he says, “because he sure ain’t a man.” It’s a chilling moment, in which an experiential truth about the black experience is transmitted from one character to another, in a context of vulnerability and fear that is, in a sense, irrefutable.
And it’s a moment that points out a complicity — a tangled involvement in American history — that is difficult, if not impossible, to evade. It calls out all of us, instead of some of us. I can attest with certainty that I’m not a racist white cop. The devil, however, is in the details, hiding in plain sight.