IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK***Admirable and Flawed


IT’S A STORY of sweet, innocent love brought down by systemic racism and judicial corruption. In the bigoted US, hate easily defeats love and at the end of Barry Jenkins’s very tender, moving (if unduly leisurely) adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, you’re torn between tears and tearing things down.

The book (and the movie) shows us a world circa 1974. After forty years and a Black President, precious little has changed; with Trump in power, things have moved backward, hate has risen and guilty of living while Black is an even more entrenched ‘crime’

Tish (Kiki Lane in her first major movie role) and Fonny (Stephan James: Selma) have known each other since childhood. They live in a bubble of each other’s love with a chemistry between the two actors that feels authentic and heartfelt. Fonny is a craftsman in wood (He can’t bring himself to be called an artist) and like all artists, he must create something out of nothing…a life, a family, a future. Like the empty loft space they plan to rent, they must both imagine the walls, imagine the furniture, imagine the home for their family idyll.

What they couldn’t imagine is that Fonny would get Liam Neeson-ed (the need to find any Black man guilty for an individual Black man’s crime) by a racist cop (Ed Skrein: Deadpool) and sent down just as Tish becomes pregnant with his child.

Jenkins (Moonlight) tells his story through a series of flash backs, alternating between the innocent sweetness of their naive love and the terrible tragedy of a system stacked against the likes of a young Black man who’d pissed off a cop. He intercuts the story with actual news photos of Black men being beaten up, harassed and chain-ganged. It’s a means of paralleling the actual with its fiction, the facelessness of institutionalised racism with the more moving reality of people we get to know.

This of course was Baldwin’s brilliance: his ability to make tangible the Black experience through seducing us into their lives, not as political exemplars, but as real people.

And here’s my problem with this film. Though Jenkins’ directing impressively brings the audience very up-close with his characters, as though we’re there in the room with them, only the mother (a wonderful Regina King) and the father (Colman Domingo: The Butler) feel real.

Tish and Fonny are bland, cutesy lovers who never rise above an idea, above their thematic intent. Jenkins’ use of newsreel ups the anger. But it’s also a cop out…as though he lacked the self-confidence of his (or Baldwin’s) creations to illustrate the idea and the anger driving the story. They’re a charming couple, but they feel inauthentic; the story offers us no pathways to their inner lives, to the ways circumstances are shaping their world-views. They remain mere figureheads in service of a polemic.

Of course as our coarsened world regresses, any popular entertainment, from Black Panther to Get Out to …Beal Street, that celebrates that Black lives do matter, is worth celebrating. There was a time not long ago when it was anathema to show Black people kissing on the screen. In …Beal Street, they’re actually screwing (clumsily, awkwardly).

Progress I suppose

 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Dir/Writer: Barry Jenkins (from the book by James Baldwin). With: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo. Cinematographer: James Laxton (Moonlight). Production designer: Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)

 

THE GAMBIA*** Two Worlds to Choose


THE GAMBIA, IN West Africa, is a narrow slab of country that follows the easterly path of the mighty Gambia river for about three hundred miles. Other than its wide Atlantic coast side, it is entirely embraced by Senegal with whom there is an easy flow of people and trade (These artificial borders cannot contain tribal bonds)
It’s the continent’s smallest country, and on a whim my wife and I, madcap young things both, went there.

Was it worth it? Sure. Here are ten good reasons why.

#1
It’s hot
Primarily, it’s February and we live in England (And it’s a lot cheaper than going anywhere else). ‘Nuff said. Temperatures here vary dramatically from a cool 16 in the early mornings, to a searing 35 by early afternoon. Walk slow and carry water!

#2.
Roots

Just under five hundred years ago, in a small, sand blighted town (Albreda) on the North bank of said Gambia river, ever-warring natives stood in awe as a large Portuguese caravel sailed into town. This was in 1526. The Portuguese colony of Brazil had run out of hapless natives to feed into the maw of its new sugar refineries and the captain of the caravel was on a mission to find replacements.

And so, in this cursed village, the Atlantic slave trade began.

It would last for over three hundred years, during which time about ten million Africans passed through sad, blood soaked towns like this, up and down the West Coast of Africa.

About four million died on the route over. But Europe got rich. Yay.

Albreda and its neighboring town, Juffureh were made famous by the wonderful inventiveness of Alex Haley, as the birthplace of one Kunta Kinteh (a claim not borne out by fact).

There’s a little island in the middle of the river where the newly bartered slaves were held, awaiting shipment to the cane, cotton and tobacco fields of the new world. This was St. James Island, proudly renamed Kunta Kinteh Island.

It still boasts the ruins of the small fort with its dank dungeon and corroded cannon. And on the mainland there are the ruins of the first church built in Africa (Catholicism and slavery have always gone hand in hand).

But the visiting tourist needs large dollops of imagination to flesh out the horror of the place. For beyond these scars of history, there are only a scatter of desolate, tired, thatched buildings and a small sparse museum, with a cracked vitrine with rusting chains offering testimony to the Slave trade.

The dreariness of the place is in stark contrast to the hoards of eager, gamboling, smiling children who are everywhere. They are the visible proof of the country’s inane boast as “The Smiling Face of Africa”. Their fate, ironically, would be less fortunate than that of their enslaved ancestors.

Fifty years after independence, the place still remains scarred by its colonial past. The Brits came soon after the Portuguese and they took and took and took, as their Empire ever on the take tended to do, leaving the Gambia a place that’s been well and truly taken. But you can choose to ignore this world and enjoy the warmth of the people and the place and believe in the narrative of the Smiling Face

And on the long slow boat ride back to Banjul (the country’s capital) the gloom was lifted by the sight of pods of dolphins playfully racing our boat.

#3.
It’s safe

We were repeatedly told by everyone here that we’d be safe wherever we went. And we were…never for a moment felt threatened. It meant we could boldly go, at night, to various local bars and restaurants and worry only about finding a taxi. You probably wouldn’t do this in many Caribbean destinations; safer to stay holed up in your tourist prison.

Safe also from dengue carrying mosquitoes or irritating sandflies. The only itch is to have a drink. Safe however doesn’t mean free from harassment. You’re constantly approached by ‘bumsters’: mainly young men who want to know your name, where you’re from and if you could give a “little something” as a donation to their school, community, their whatever.

After a day or so of politeness, the harder edge of “No. goodbye” emerges

#4.
Calypso

No, not the music, it’s a bar/restaurant situated in an area called Cape Point where the tables are ensconced in their own thatched areas, so you can sit idly by its large crocodile pond, mesmerized by the strutting egrets and the swooping terns. The pond seems to have enough fish for everyone, including those terns whose entire days seem to be the repeated pattern of circle and swoop, circle and swoop. The restaurant’s food is neither here nor there, but the choice of booze is great (There’s no government tax on alcohol in Gambia, so it’s cheap to be cheerful)

#5.
Paradise Beach

We’re not big beach people…all that sweaty prostration before the bronzing sun seems more effort than’s worth a tan. But the available beach chairs that front any of the many beach bar/restaurants are free. For a small fee, attendants will erect shady umbrellas and wait-staff are ever at hand for food, drink, maybe other things. GMT here means Gambian Maybe Time. It’s an accurate enough term for the hours of lazy, people-watching delights this long, wide, flat, child-friendly beach offers.

Colourful Gambian women parade up and down selling baskets; turbaned kaftan-wearing men hawk startlingly ugly beach towels; horsemen gallop to and fro offering their steeds to adventurous tourists; little boys parade mobile galleries of cheap craft; mature White women stroll hand in hand with their temporary young Black lovers; and a cool breeze removes any temptation to dip in the grey Atlantic.

#6
Ngala Lodge

The Lodge (where we stayed for some of our trip) is one of the many tourist enclaves where you live in a wonderful gilded bubble of post imperial might. We could be anywhere really. It’s twenty four large, unique suites, each a mini museum of stunning African art. They sit atop a wide expanse of rolling green lawns, criss-crossed by a network of curving cockle shell pathways that lead down some wooden stairs down the rugged cliff, down to the restless sea.

The place has the reputation for offering the best food in The Gambia. It’s probably a justified reputation. But there’s hardly a trace of Gambia in its aggressively European offering. For that you need #7

#7
African Queen
This is a hopping spot on the crowded, touristy, music filled Senegambia strip. It’s THE place to hang out! African Queen is an open air, popular restaurant that’s as lively as its surroundings…with fabulous Gambian food served by friendly waitresses (They offered my wife a ‘companion’ should she grow bored with me. She refused. Whew). As with so many other enterprises, it’s Lebanese owned (The new colonists?). The local food (that we tried) is peanutty, spicy and plentiful. The rice dish – with local variants across West Africa – is jolloff rice. It’s a tomato-ey , herby, peppery small grain dish that’s fulfilling on its own. You can wash it down with hibiscus juice or Baobab punch. (Or crisp, cold, South African Sauvignon blanc).

This area of the country (the Western coast) abounds in restaurants. (Check out Boss Lady for more local fare or Seashells for fish). No starving on this holiday.

#8
Fauna

Gambia’s famous for its birdwatching. In our lodge, though there was no internet, we were surrounded by tweets. They’re over two hundred and ninety species of birds here and even if you’re not a birdwatcher (I’m not), it’s a treat to gently cruise along the oyster rich mangroves of the Gambia and await the homecoming egrets; or stroll through the garrulous bush, alive with bee eaters, darters, turacos, kingfishers, herons, sunbirds, hornbills, gulls and more.

You can also observe the tribal behavior and kinship rituals of the camera heavy bird photographer species, and their bete noirs, the notebook toting, bird type ticking ornithologists . One of this species pointed out to us an osprey, whose white leg-band – observable only through her zillion mm lens – signified its German origin (blue = Scottish; green = you get the picture). Here size really does matter. Even my fancy schmancy Nikon shriveled into Instamatic insignificance when compared with these camera cannons.

This isn’t the place for big game. Beyond birds, and a few crocs, (Green Vervet) monkeys are everywhere. And one morning our lodge was invaded by a large troupe of animated baboons, no doubt pissed off that their heritage route had been ruined by another swimming pool.

#9
Mandina Lodge

Another wealth bubble, this is a birdwatchers’ paradise, popularized by the regular visits of noted ornithologist and TV host, Chris Packham. Our Lodge was a floating cabin, with its own private balcony, moored on a tributary of the Gambia. You awoke, and drifted off to sleep to the sound of birds and splashing fish.

The Englishman who founded it told us it was designed to replicate and celebrate Gambian culture (As usual said culture was nowhere to be found in the almost exclusively European menus). But the tasteful designs seemed more Africa by way of Hollywood. The Gambia as a colonial’s Wakanda. No matter, art always makes ordinary reality far more interesting.

Here each guest is allocated a knowledgeable guide who arranges and accompanies you on your forest walks or (the more interesting) canoe or boat trips. There’s a sunset boat trip, that carries its own portable bar. It takes you up to a small island where just before the sun dips, thousands of egrets return after a long day of doing not very much.

#10
Craft

It’s everywhere. Every small village, every market, every beach has its ramshackle huts with harassed hawkers haggling over the price of their craft. Most of it is terrible: brightly varnished, simplistic wooden masks and animals shapes, mass produced by generations of squatting craftsmen. So many chips off the old blocks. But some of the stalls sold beautiful, intricately carved, ancient Malian ware. The spirit that gave us the Benin bronzes is alive and well. Elsewhere.

And yet, just a few mm deeper than the bonhomie, than the “Smiling Face of Africa”, a shadow lies. The money and the real power still seem to reside in the pockets of the White (and Chinese) community. The high and mighty are still high, still mighty, still White. The poor, still poor, still Black. Nothing’s changed. And there seems to be a growing resentment. The Trini saying goes: “all skin teeth ain’t smile”.

Colonialism may no longer arrive at the end of a bayonet, but it’s certainly here at the end of a bankbook.

 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME***** Yes


“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?”

THIS IS A well told, fascinating story (in the “watching a car crash” type of fascination) of Lee Israel, a cranky, friendless alcoholic biographer, fallen on hard times (MeIissa McCarthy in her most compelling role to date). In order to pay the rent, she turns the sale of a letter to her from Katherine Hepburn and the chance discovery (and petty theft) of one from Fanny Bryce into the full-blown business of literary forgeries. She basically invents convincingly ‘real’ letters from famous (and dead) authors, forges their signatures and flogs them to any one of a swath of mainly dodgy dealers.

Along the way, she hooks up – “befriends” is too strong a word – with an old acquaintance and fellow drunk, Jack (Richard E Grant as a charismatically engaging loser)

Two unlikeable reprobates, on the wrong side of the law, sharing their booze and their misery.

She, in particular, is the kind of person you try hard to avoid. She’s selfish, abusive, and hostile to any attempt at friendship or empathy (other than to her dying cat). Even her many years as a modestly successful biographer – immersing herself into and channeling the lives of others – was really just a way of escaping herself, her own life.

Even Lee didn’t like being around Lee.

Jack, who bumps into her in a bar (naturally), is more naturally charming: a homeless, ageing, gay libertine with a shady past and no future, still clinging to his fading looks to seduce whoever’s within reach.

This isn’t a feel-good movie. There is no hidden inner core of decency just waiting to be unveiled in a moment of heart-warming redemption. The (brilliantly constructed) movie, based on Ms. Israel’s autobiography is too honest to fall for that Hollywood con.

And perhaps this is what makes it such compelling viewing. There’s an authenticity to it; it pulls no punches, offers no sermonising, arrives at no artificially shaped, life-ennobling moral. It simply leads us into this sordid world of personal dishonesties, and lets us come to our own conclusions. Lee -honestly- feels no regrets for her dishonesty; for having bamboozled collectors (seen as a generally shifty bunch of underhand wheeler-dealers anyway). And she’s never anything but honest in owning up to her dishonesty…to pay for her crime.

In its own idiosyncratic way, this honesty about her dishonesty opens up the pathway to the discovery of her authentic voice. Instead of hiding herself in the lives of others, she finally finds her own life one worth living and writing about. In a sense, crime does pay.

Both actors are riveting. Both are deserving of their Oscar nominations. (It’s impossible to imagine the roles in any other hands. Apparently Julianne Moore was initially considered for the lead role. Terrible thought. ). And they both deliver such fully convincing portraits that it’s impossible not to be hooked…not to be one with the director (Marielle Heller in her first major movie) and fall in love with her subjects, disreputable though they may be.

Heller’s movie is as brilliant a piece of portrait ‘painting’ as any Rembrandt. The portrait may be of two sad, depressing people. It’s far from a sad, depressing portrait.

Such a miss on the part of the Oscar’s that this heralded movie was not nominated for Best Movie

 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? DIR: Marielle Heller. Writer: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty. With: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant (Logan, Jackie), Jane Curtin (The Spy Who Dumped Me). Cinematographer: Brandon Trost (Bad Neighbours)

 

 

GREEN BOOK****Hits the right notes


THIS MARVELLOUS MOVIE deftly pulls off an incredible sleight of hand. This is thanks to some superb writing by Peter Farrelly (who also directed) and Brian Currie (from a memoir by Nick Vallelonga) and the tremendous chemistry between Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. The (reality based) story set in the early 60’s, pairs Tony Vallelonga aka TonyLip, a casually racist Italian bruiser (Mortensen) with Dr. Don Shirley, a fastidious Black pianist (Ali). Tony has been employed by Dr. Shirley’s record company to chauffeur him around (and protect him) as he and his trio meander down into the segregationist South performing to sell out and increasingly racist audiences. The Green Book refers to the guide to the hotels Black people were allowed to stay in.

This is buddy movie heaven. Two opposites thrown together to snipe at each other and eventually bring out the best of each other, in a typical opposites-attract Hollywood bromance.

It shouldn’t work. We can guess at the arc of the story from the very beginning (slyly at the Copacabana where bouncer Tony beats up a drunk while the resident MC/crooner belts out “That Old Black Magic”. Get it?). We know somehow Shirley’s erudition will help smooth Tony’s (very) rough edges. We know his music will sooth Tony’s savage beast; and we know Tony’s community rootedness will reintegrate Shirley into his own community.

The movie transforms these clichéd tropes into something quite surprisingly up-lifting. It works because at the thematic level, it’s a nuanced exploration of racial identity and belonging, largely seen through the eyes of the two protagonists. Tony boasts that he’s lived in and belongs to the same neighbourhood that his parents and their parents lived in. He’s almost the clichéd Italian-American: the spaghetti eating, family-loving, wise-guy hobnobbing, Italian-speaking expression of his community. He has no doubt whatsoever of his sense of self; his identity.

Shirley is the opposite. He has no community. He belongs nowhere. He’s a haunted, depressed, highly controlled, lonely man who doesn’t identify Black. And can’t identify White. In one telling scene, he sits at the back of his limo, nattily dressed in his perfectly fitting suit and looks out with a mix of puzzlement and perhaps shame at the poor, ill-shod, Black cotton pickers in the fields across the way. They regard him with curiosity and contempt as if he’s some alien being. Here’s the brilliant musician unfamiliar with the Black music of his time (Little Richard, Aretha Franklyn etc).

He’s not even straight.

Unlike Tony, there’s no community in which Shirley can possibly fit. Even the music he so brilliantly plays (a sort of high class jazz) isn’t the music he’d rather play: Handel and Liszt better suite his temperament and creative spirit (But who wants to hear that?).

Identity is belonging. Without it, you’re little more than a nowhere man.

Beyond this intellectual dimension, the two characters – in no small part due to the superb performances of Mahershala Ali, and especially the weight-gained Viggo Mortensen – come across as engagingly real. Their bond feels like the genuine thing, not an artificial construct. Tony is a quick-tempered thug. But he’s also a loving husband and father; an essentially decent and open-minded person. We witness his early racism slip away the more he sees beyond the race to the person. This in direct contrast with Shirley’s White Southern audiences, who only ever see a Black entertainer. The classical pianist tolerated as an exotic circus performer.

Shirley meanwhile, firmly locked in the castle of his skin, hides his loneliness and frailty beneath a mask of patronising hauteur, crisp diction and Scotch.

The arc of the narrative traces his inner journey as he slowly discovers his own racial identity, and, through Tony, an embryonic sense of belonging.

There are some scenes that border on the corny (He’s reluctantly introduced to KFC by Tony; and then re-introduced to fried chicken by one of his Southern White hosts who deems it appropriately ethnic. Shirley is disdainful of this kind of racist type casting; but to Tony, food is culture. Be proud)

The movie is funny, insightful and often, without schmaltz, quite heart tugging. It’s been accused of over-simplifying the complex issue of US race relations (and indeed, it would be interesting to imagine the same story directed by a Black director). But its central focus -retain your dignity; never resort to violence- offers the refreshing perspective of race relations seen not through the perspective of politics but through that of art’s intimate, healing touch.

The result is something that’s magical and never maudlin. It’s a tough balancing act, sensitively finessed by director Farrelly, whose past successes (The Three Stooges, There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber) were less, let’s say, nuanced.

 

GREEN BOOK. Dir/Written: Peter Farrelly. Co-Writer: Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga. With: Viggo Mortensen, Maherslhala Ali, Linda Cardellini (Avengers, Age of Ultron). Cinematographer: Sean Porter (Green Room), Production Designer: Tim Galvin (The Butler), Composer: Kris BowersDear White People; TV)