If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
"Somebody's gonna bomb that Apple." The Apple in question is the Mets' Citi Field's Home Run Apple, which has never been "bombed" by graffiti in its entire history and therefore represents the Holy Grail to New York graffiti artists. If you could somehow get access to that Home Run Apple, and "bomb" it, your work would be broadcast to the masses and you'd be a legend!
"Bombing the Apple" is the lofty goal of Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson), the two young Bronx graffiti artists in "Gimme the Loot," writer/director Adam Leon's first feature. And what a confident and entertaining first feature it is. Filmed all over the city, it shows a New York that has been missing from American cinema for quite some time. It is an anti-glamorous New York that still exists: grimy delis with cashiers hidden behind plate-glass, black-top parks with ferocious basketball games in progress, the languid crowded torpor of Union Square on a hot summer night. The locations are used offhandedly, although there are a couple of scenes that reach a kind of poetry (one involving a water tower). The characters, sometimes in long-shot, stroll through a cityscape that throbs with a palpable pulse of overpopulation and noise.
We don't know much about the home lives of Sofia and Malcolm, although we can assume that things are pretty rough. Roughness, however, does not define them. They spend their time tagging walls and roofs in their neighborhood, coming up with designs, and plotting to raise the $500 that will give them off-hours access to the Home Run Apple at Citi Field. They are engaged in a mild turf war with other graffiti artists, who spray over their designs. They make a great team.
Director Leon said he was inspired by comedies like "Uptown Saturday Night," as well as the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies. Watching Malcolm and Sofia roam around the city, arguing, plotting, harassing each other, but with a clear undercurrent of fondness coursing beneath, is the main delight of the film. The two are accustomed to having to act tough, but there are a couple of electrically tender moments where you get the sense that, really, they should just get it over with and start kissing immediately.
"Gimme the Loot" is thrilling, although there aren't any stereotypically "thrilling" sequences. The thrill comes from the compulsively watchable dynamic between the two leads (non-professional actors, both of them), the excellent supporting cast (also non-professionals), and the fun use of multiple locations throughout the bustling metropolis. "Gimme the Loot" is really about class -- a serious issue, obviously, as the gap between the haves and have-nots widens almost perceptibly. The fact that Sofia and Malcolm view the $500 as nearly impossible to acquire is eloquent.
Malcolm sells dope to finance his work with Sofia. Ty Hickson, a young man born and raised in Harlem, has a beautiful humorous energy, and a visceral openness to the camera, rare in a non-professional actor, but rare with professionals as well. He is emotionally transparent. Watch his face, watch his reactions; he is always listening, always thinking. There is a standout scene where he delivers marijuana to a rich white girl (Zoe Lescaze), lolling about in her parents' apartment. She is bored, mischievous, and wants to talk. As Sofia rages around their Bronx neighborhood far uptown, trying to raise money, Malcolm starts kissing the rich girl, her bed surrounded by a decor of dead bats and creepy skulls ("You price a skull by the number of the teeth," the girl informs Malcolm) and he confesses to Sofia later, "I fell in love today." You believe him. He acts like a stud, but he's not fooling anyone. Sofia, startled, starts lecturing him about condom use, as they cross Union Square.
Malcolm may have fallen in love, but he also couldn't help but notice that the rich girl had a glass case on her desk filled with vintage jewelry. This could be the windfall he and Sofia so desperately need.
There is one masterfully suspenseful sequence where Sofia is sent to follow the rich girl on her daily run, while Malcolm and an older criminal-type named Champion (Meeko), try to pick the giant lock in the penthouse stairwell to the girl's apartment. Poor Sofia trails after the rich girl on what appears to be an endless run, chasing her across avenues, along the East River, through parks, up and down stairs.
Meanwhile, Champion and Malcolm get off to a rough start because they are not sure what floor they are on. Does the ground floor count as "1"? Is the second floor actually the first floor? Champion, covered in tattoos and handsome in an intimidating and tough way, says to Malcolm, "Okay, let's start from scratch" and they head back down the stairwell again to count their way back up. Specific details like this one give the film its personality and comedy. Nothing goes smoothly, especially when you dream big.
Although money is the driving force in everyone's lives here (even the rich girl, who dismisses Malcolm in a painful later scene when she is surrounded by her upscale friends), it's the hustle, the "gimme" of the title that provides the adrenaline rush, not the loot itself, not even the oasis-mirage of a bombed Home Run Apple being broadcast to Mets fans everywhere.
Adam Leon has created something unique and current, with affectionate nods to New York films of the past. The soundtrack is superb, filled with doo-wop and R&B numbers that soar with nostalgia for a time gone by. His young cast inhabits the world of the film like a well-worn pair of sneakers. "Gimme the Loot" is successful on every level, and won the Grand Jury Prize at the SXSW. It is thrilling to contemplate what Leon will do next.
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