If Beale Street Could Talk: The Difference Good Lighting Can Make

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and without hesitating I replied, “The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It is one of the most important books of the 20th century.” I would strongly urge any American to read it, or anyone who is interested in understanding the history of race in America. James Baldwin brought a crucial voice to American society in the middle of the 20th century, one that is being carried on by many black American artists today. One of these rising artists is filmmaker Barry Jenkins. He hasn’t even turned 40 and already directed the 2016’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Moonlight. His next film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel by the same name.

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Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, it is the story of a young black couple who are hoping to marry and start a life together when the young man is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. The creativity and insight of both storytellers results in a powerful combined narrative of love, injustice, powerlessness and resilience. The character’s lives are fraught as they try to pursue hope for a bright future while hitting constant roadblocks of inequality. From housing discrimination to racial profiling, the cards feel continually stacked against them. It is a story of families striving to protect their children to build a better life for them in the face of social degradation. It is a story of resourcefulness in the absence of access to resources, a story of beauty and hope intermixed with fear and disappointment. Beale Street progresses with a slow burn, but the gradual saga it weaves is finely tuned.

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Jenkins has a distinct and moving style of filmmaking. He has a unique ability as a storyteller to depict harsh realities with an aura of warmth and beauty. Rather than bleak lighting for bleak themes, Jenkins’ subjects exude vibrant colors. Both Beale Street and Moonlight are visually stunning, mesmerizing in the beauty of their cinematography. He uses long straight-on shots of the characters, endowing them with dignity and a sense of wonder. As you watch them move through their worlds you feel that it is an honor to see them in their fullness, that you are catching a glimpse of something rare and profound. Even when they are suffering or treated with cruelty by others, Jenkins’ camera imputes a constant tenderness that cannot be taken away. I recently heard a comment from someone in the film industry that you need people of color making films because actors with different skin tones have different lighting needs. On a technical level, it can be challenging to make all actors look equally good on screen. Jenkins’ skill in this area is unsurpassed. The actors in his films all look radiant, a testament to what can happen when structural changes are made to bring out the best everyone has to offer.

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What Jenkins accomplishes on screen speaks to a bigger call to our American society. A major theme of Beale Street is the creativity that the black community has been forced to cultivate in the absence of opportunity. Deprived of social equality, parents and individuals have to find alternate ways to put food on the table and to try to protect the next generation from harm. This is an exhausting and limiting way to live. Baldwin raises an important question in The Fire Next Time:

“The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity. America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not.”

What would America look like if racial inequality had not been consuming our energy and creativity for centuries? What could we have achieved by now if we allowed all our citizens to contribute the best of what they have to offer? What else could we have innovated by working together rather than keeping many groups silent and powerless? Segregation and inequality not only damages marginalized groups, it robs all of society. The characters in Beale Street wanted to create and contribute to the flourishing of society. Their contributions were dramatically limited by systemic inequality. Jenkins grew up with incredible environmental challenges and yet has managed to offer art that is lovely and compelling. The call for equality is so much more than a social crusade. It is a call to unlock the God-given potential that lies within our whole country. To seek the flourishing of the marginalized is to seek the flourishing of us all. If we have come this far with a very broken system, imagine how much farther we could go with a system that works for everyone.

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Content advisory: Beale Street contains some language and two scenes of sexuality, one including nudity. The scenes are filmed with tenderness and care and compliment the story, but viewer discretion is advised.

 

 

The Power of The Last Jedi

“You underestimate the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader to his son and desired apprentice Luke Skywalker. It’s one of those Star Wars lines that sticks with you. The line is meant to strike fear in young Skywalker, but it puts on display one of the major themes of the saga and one that is so beautifully at the center in the newest installment, The Last Jedi. In an expansive galaxy like that of Star Wars, with expert pilots, exotic alien creatures, and supernatural warrior priests, who has the most power? What does true power look like?

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The easy answer for many long-time fans would be “The Force.” After all, according to Obi Wan Kenobi, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The genius of The Last Jedi is that it, not only calls into question what we know about The Force, but shows us that it is not the be-all-end-all of power in the galaxy. The ancient war that has been waging for decades across the saga, framed by a simple conflict between light and dark, just isn’t that simple after all. Which is a lesson Luke Skywalker, the legendary hero of the original trilogy, has had to learn the hard way.

What the new movies have done so well is thematically and narratively explore the lives of the old cast through the eyes of the new. 2015’s The Force Awakens did this through Han. Han Solo has always been the ultimate lone wolf, on the run from one thing or another. In Episode VII, we meet Finn and Rey, two people at a point in their lives where they are ready to escape and Han is the perfect spiritual guide. Throughout the movie Rey, ready for a father figure, bonds with Han and with his ship, the Millennium Falcon, which has been the ultimate getaway car throughout Star Wars cannon. Finn escapes his life as a Stormtrooper and is confronted with a decision to keep running or be a part of something bigger. There are so many parallels to what we know of Han’s story in both Finn and Rey. The Force Awakens was very much Han’s chapter. In the same way, The Last Jedi is Luke’s.

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Even in the final moments of Episode VII, there is a literal hand-off of the story taking place. Now if we’re going to explore the life of Luke Skywalker that means we have to explore The Force, the history of the Jedi, and the allure of the dark side. The Luke we meet in The Last Jedi is a failure. He tried to live up to his legend and lost control setting into motion many of the events of the new movies. He’s spent his time since absorbing all of the past mistakes of the Jedi, knowledge that brilliantly ties together the mythology of the prequels to the original trilogy. Back in 2015, I wrote about the failures of the Jedi order, but basically Luke has realized that the Jedi failed because of their own quest for power. At their peak, the Jedi assumed reign over the galaxy, but just when their power peaked, when they thought they had it locked down, they were vulnerable to manipulation, deceit, and were over thrown. This was the story of Episodes I-III.

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Into Luke’s despair and regret walks Rey pleading with him to be her mentor, to show her where she fits in the grand scheme of things. Really, what she is pleading for is exactly what the Jedi were supposed to be. It is very difficult to be defined by your power when you are actively trying to help someone become more powerful than you. At the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren tells Rey she needs a teacher, a sentiment she repeats to Luke. She doesn’t need a Jedi knight to ride into battle, she needs a Jedi master. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” I won’t tell you who says this to whom in The Last Jedi, but it might as well have been Jesus talking to his disciples or Barnabas talking to Paul.

Pastor Efrem Smith tweeted recently, “If Christians were meant to pursue political power at any cost, Christ wouldn’t have turned down Satan’s offers in the wilderness.” At the height of Jesus’ ministry, he gave up his life and at the height of his power, after resurrecting from the dead, he ascends into Heaven giving space for the apostles to lead. This has to be the example Barnabas was following when it came time to develop his apprentice, Paul. In Barnabas we have the man who vouched for the murderer Paul, the man who took that villain and trained him to be a Biblical hero, but to do all that he had to risk all of his power and eventually give it all away to Paul.

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This is also a lesson ace pilot Poe Dameron must learn in The Last Jedi. He has been flying by on his ability and skills for too long, and now must learn what it really means to lead the rebellion. Luckily, he is surrounded by resistance leaders who, just like Luke has learned his lessons about the Force, have learned their lessons about war. Without the legend of Luke Skywalker supplying hope to the resistance, Poe and Leia are racing against the clock to keep the rebellion alive. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about The Last Jedi is that, as Han’s story handed off to Luke at the end of Episode VII, Episode VIII, in so many ways, hands the story off to Leia and the resistance. This, however, is a chapter we will never totally see. The story of Princess Leia has ended off of the silver screen.

There are times in The Last Jedi where it feels like everyone is failing, and they are. The film reminds us, though, that failure is the greatest teacher. When we feel like we can’t fail, like the prequels’ Jedi order or Supreme Leader Snoke, or when we are afraid to fail, like Luke when he was training Ben Solo, we may have failed already. What does it look like to give your power away to the next generation? What does it look like to lay your life down in the ultimate resignation of your power? The answers to those questions are the ones Rey, Poe, and the resistance learn in The Last Jedi and will guide the saga into Episode IX.

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