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TIFF 2018: If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows

Two of the most highly anticipated World Premieres of the Toronto International Film Festival came courtesy of directors whose last films won the Oscar for Best Picture. Could new works from Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins possibly live up to sky-high expectations created by “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight”? Not only do they live up to those expectations but they turned out to be two of the most vital films of not just TIFF, but of the year, two of the surprisingly small handful of works from this year’s fest that feel like they’re commenting on where we are in 2018. 

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As he introduced “If Beale Street Could Talk” at the World Premiere, Jenkins offered a brief history of the real Beale Street in Memphis, noting how there are “Beale Streets” all over the world. Even without that introduction, the subtext of his masterful drama is clear: this may be a very specific story in a very specific time and place but its issues matter today, maybe more than ever. 

Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel, “Beale Street” operates on multiple levels in nearly every scene. It is both a character study and a cry for social justice; a lushly poetic piece of work and one razor-sharp in its attention to detail; a love story and a tragedy. It is the kind of film that can be appreciated purely for what’s on screen or analyzed frame by frame and theme by theme as Roger used to do with his Cinema Interruptus program. In other words, it’s a rare, brilliant accomplishment.

KiKi Layne gets the part that will turn her into a star as Tish, a 19-year-old in ‘70s New York. She works a perfume counter—a montage about how customers handle her differently depending on their race and gender is unforgettable—but her life is about to truly change forever because she’s pregnant. The father is a young man named Fonny (also future star Stephan James), who is in prison awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. As befitting the source material, “If Beale Street Could Talk” unfolds in episodic vignettes that detail both the unfolding love story between childhood friends that led to the pregnancy and the current race to get Fonny out of jail. Some scenes very purposefully propel the narrative forward, but Jenkins isn’t afraid to linger in more character-driven moments such as a memory of a time an old friend (played by the really-having-a-deserved-moment Brian Tyree Henry) came to visit or the day Fonny & Tish looked for an apartment in which they could start a life. There’s a moment in which Fonny pantomimes bringing their furniture and appliances into the new dwelling that is heartbreaking—nothing's really there, and there probably won’t be now that he’s caught up in the system.

Once again, Barry Jenkins proves to be one of our most multi-faceted filmmakers. Some people mistakenly branded “Moonlight” as a “universal” story, not realizing that it was the specifics of that film that made it a masterpiece. “Beale Street” is more intentionally lyrical at times but no less passionate, angry, or relevant to today’s issues of black people being caught up in a rigged system. Jenkins is such a multi-faceted genius, able to create scenes that are almost dreamlike but then ground them through his incredible skill with performers. Layne and James are phenomenal, but the movie belongs to Regina King as Tish’s mother. King has been one of television’s best actresses for the last decade or so, and it feels like such a gift to see her get this rich a part and deliver so profoundly. It’s one of the best performances of the year.

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Befitting an adaptation of Baldwin’s work, “If Beale Street Could Talk” contains layer after layer, and it's breathtaking how each of those layers resonates. It is a beautiful love story wrapped in an angry cry. It somehow, and I’m still not really sure how, maintains both that gauzy, poetic sense of a memory while also being real in every beat. You float along with these characters into a different time and place, and you get to know them so well that they feel current. In so many ways, the issues they faced still are.

It’s probably not surprising to learn that Steve McQueen’s badass “Widows,” co-written with Gillian Flynn of “Sharp Objects” and “Gone Girl” fame, is also more of a social commentary than the previews lead you to believe. Yes, on the surface, it’s a razor-sharp thriller with the best ensemble I’ve seen all year, but there’s also SO much going on in this film thematically about the people that dirty politics leaves behind and how those people may be inclined to take what they’re owed for themselves. This is also one of the best films of the year.

McQueen grabs viewers instantly, thrusting them into a loud, terrifying car chase between a gang of robbers and the cops following them. In brief flashbacks within the chase, we meet the key players, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). The cops catch up to the gang and gunfire erupts, leading to the explosion of their vehicle and a quartet of widows in the city of Chicago.

Harry’s wife was named Veronica (Viola Davis), and she’s soon confronted by what her husband’s crimes have laid at her feet. It turns out that Harry and his crew had robbed a very powerful local figure named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, again, doing his best film work to date), who is now running for alderman of the 18th ward. He needs the cash that Harry took and Veronica has to get it for him. With the help of a message left for her by her dead husband, Veronica finds Harry’s “crime journal,” a detailed list of all the dirt he’s got, as well as plans for the next job. Instead of just selling the book to the highest bidder, Veronica makes a crazy decision—the next job would pay 2.5 times the last one. They pull it off, pay back Jamal, and have something to run away with.

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The “they” is the other widows of Harry’s crew, including Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Amanda (Carrie Coon). Alice is struggling the most, working as an escort to make ends meet, while Linda loses the business she thought she owned but that her husband had really lost gambling. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of a race for alderman between Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), part of a family tree of Chicago politics (his father played by Robert Duvall), and the apple not only doesn’t fall far but is similarly rotten. (Daniel Kaluuya and Cynthia Erivo also co-star and give two of the best performances in the film. There's no one bad here, and there are about six or seven honestly great acting turns.)

Like Jenkins’ work, “Widows” can be appreciated on multiple levels. Most will see it as a straight-up thriller—I heard apt comparisons to “Heat” in Toronto—and it’s as effective as anything in a long time on that level. Working with the great Sean Bobbitt again (he shot all of his films) and the ace editing of Joe Walker (who did “12 Years” as well as most of Villeneuve’s movies), Steve McQueen has made a film that hums (there’s also a kick-ass Hans Zimmer score, for the record). There’s no wasted space, time, dialogue, etc. It’s a finely-tuned machine. And it’s so angry. “Widows” is a great heist movie with a twist but it too is about broken systems, corruption, and a culture of violence. There will be a lot written about “Widows” on this site and more but I’ll leave it at this: McQueen has made a film that inherently has a completely different feel than “12 Years a Slave,” but the filmmaking elements—how he directs performers, his skill with framing & pacing, and his palpable passion—are all the same.

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