When Green Book was announced as the winner of the Best Picture at this year’s Academy Award, one could practically hear the collective groan that went up. The film, many argued, was too simplistic and too banal in its exploration of race relations in America, particularly when compared to other films such as Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. G
Having now seen it, in conjunction with Barry Jenkins’s new film, I can say that those frustrations are justified.
If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, chronicles the budding romance between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), which faces an existential crisis when the latter is accused of having raped a woman and imprisoned. The film toggles between past and future, showing the beginnings and flourishing of their romance, as well as the struggles they face after he goes to prison.
It probably goes without saying that, in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has managed to recapture the same sort of magic that he brought to his Oscar Award winning Moonlight. The film is visually lush, with a color palette that makes the texture of fabric sensible to our own fingers, inviting us to experience the rich, deep love between the film’s two leads. The score is hauntingly beautiful, likewise invoking the exuberant joy of first love.
Yet it is precisely the films exquisite beauty that makes its ending that much more tragic. Having confessed to the rape in order to avoid even harsher punishment, Fonny must now spend several years in prison. Still, the two of them attempt to make the best of this awful situation, and Tish brings their son to regularly see his father, and the film ends with this haunting tableau: a family united yet also irreparably shattered by the violence of the state.
Of course, we’ve been primed for this unhappy ending throughout the film, for Jenkins makes the canny choice to intersperse the film’s lush colors with moments of black and white photography depicting the depredations of a police state that sees black bodies as little more than prison fodder. Though we want Fonny and Tish to find a way out of this dreadful situation, we also know that it can never be.
As I sat in the theater watching that family manage to claw some sort of love and unity out of this horrid situation, I was struck by how the ending tears apart the Hollywood myth of the happy ending, for though they are united in their love of each other, they are separated by the institutions that have oppressed people of color and by the banal pettiness of racism.
The next day, I saw Green Book, and wow, what a different film. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer who is employed by renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to be his driver as he makes a tour of the Deep South. Though clearly racist himself, as they journey through the south Tony gets a clear sense of the tremendous toll this takes on his employer. He gradually comes to recognize the terrible injustice of Dr. Shirley’s life.
Let me say upfront that the film is not nearly as bad as I had thought it would be, and I think it might be overstating it to say that it is explicitly racist. I don’t think it would be going too far, however, to say that the film is disingenuous in the extreme, and I can understand why many were upset that the film won out over such contenders as Roma, The Favourite, and BlacKkKlansman.
For one thing, the film isn’t about race relations, or the black experience in America, or about black people at all, really. What it is about is one white man’s journey to understanding the injustices that black people face. Let me be clear. This is not at all the same thing as focusing on Dr. Shirley’s experience, precisely because so much of the film is about, and told through, his perspective. Of course, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find a Hollywood film channeling our present anxieties about racial strife through the eyes of a white man.
More irritatingly, one of the film’s central conceits is that Tony has a salt-of-the-earth wisdom that is superior to the more educated one possessed by Don. In one particularly notable scene, Tony actually has the gall to claim that he is more authentically black than his employer (because he likes fried chicken and knows who Aretha Franklin is), and the film doesn’t really make any effort to show either Tony or the presumptive viewer how utterly ridiculous that claim is.
Most frustrating, however, is the ending, in which is exactly what you would expect from a liberal film from the early 1990s: after returning to NYC, Tony invites Don in to enjoy Christmas with his family. While at first Don demurs, at the end he knocks on the door, is admitted, and is welcomed into Tony’s family. Now, to be clear, the film has gone out of its way to show how everyone in Tony’s family except for his wife is as virulently racist as he is, and somehow the film seems to want this ending to do the heavy lifting of making us believe that they have all had a moment of enlightenment. Such naivete is both laughable and incredibly frustrating.
Through this narrative closure, the film promulgates the idea that somehow, if everyone just puts their minds to it, the film suggests, everything will be okay, no tearing down of institutional racism needed! So predictable is it, and so heavy-handed in its delivery, that I actually groaned when I realized what was about to happen. Surely, I thought, this can’t be how they intend to end this film. Alas, it was.
Let me be clear: the ending isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s okay sometimes to go to movies simply for the pleasure of feeling good. What frustrates me, though, is that the film remains so resolutely and frustratingly wed to Tony’s perspective. Everything hinges on his “acceptance” of Don, who remains a shadowy and elusive presence right up until the end.
I suppose I wouldn’t be as annoyed as I am had not Green Book not won the Oscar for Best Picture, a category in which If Beale Street Could Talk was not even nominated (when it clearly should have been). It is tremendously frustrating to once again see a film that takes the easy out when it comes to issues of race in the United States win the Best Picture, a frustration made that much worse by one Academy member’s huffy claim to The New York Times that he voted for Green Book because he was tired of being told how to vote by those outside of the Academy.
These two films, with their radically different endings, make different demands on us as viewers. Beale Street forces us to reckon with the consequences of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, which cannot be waved away by the banalities of a Hollywood ending. Green Book, on the other hand, reassures us that everything will be all right, so long as good white men like Tony take it upon themselves to not be racist.
In 2019, we deserve better from Hollywood than the triteness of Green Book. Thank goodness we have If Beale Street Could Talk.