Native Son (2019)

Native Son’s distribution trajectory from film festival darling to straight-to-HBO oblivion is a curious, but increasingly familiar path. As with other recent A24 acquisitions like Under the Silver Lake and The Hole in the Ground, Native Son earned some immediate critical buzz out of film festivals like Sundance but was ultimately quietly shoveled off to home distribution & little accompanying fanfare. For its initial half hour, I mostly understood that decision. The film starts off as a fairly standard Sundance Drama™ about a listless teen protagonist who’s struggling with solidifying his identity and his place in the modern world. However, the final hour of that drama is a different beast entirely. Once Native Son ratchets up the dramatic tension of its central crisis, it transforms into an incredibly tense nightmare with thunderously discomforting things to say about race and class in America. If you afford it your patience, it gradually reveals itself as a picture that cannot be easily dismissed – if not only for the toll it leaves on your blood pressure – no matter how quietly it was siphoned off to television by its distributor.

Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders stars as a punk rock Chicagoan bike messenger who feels out of step with his local black community because of his D.I.Y. anarchist values and the absence of his deceased father. Rejecting the riskier (and less-than-legal) money-making schemes of his peers but in desperate need of cash to help support his family, he takes a job as a chauffer for a wealthy white family in a drastically different corner of Chicago. As soon as he steps foot in that mansion the film transforms into an incredibly tense thriller with no possible positive outcome for a character we naturally like but can’t prevent from making life-destroying decisions. It’s like watching a version of Get Out with all the tension-deflating humor & genre thrills removed, leaving the audience on the verge of screaming out in warning just so that someone says something to this lost soul before he loses what little he has. His relationships with his mother, his friends, his siblings, and his girlfriend (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne, another Barry Jenkins alum) all register as standard film festival fodder, but the intensity of any scene where he is subject to the whims, power, and boredom of his white employers makes Native Son feel like a white-knuckle thriller that won’t be satisfied until it chokes the life out of America’s most shameful ills.

Native Son is both elevated and hindered by its literary source material, a 1940s novel that has maintained a disturbing level of relevance over the decades. The lofty dialogue that derives from that source both affords the film the operatic heights of a stage play Tragedy and opens it up to some fairly eyeroll-worthy inner-monologue narration that dampers the full potential of its tension & poetry. As vague & empty as that narration can be, Sanders is generally excellent in the role – especially in how he performatively deepens his voice to sound like an authoritative man instead of the vulnerable child that he truly is. His performance and the tension of his employment under a family outside his character’s social boundaries even lead the film to some truly harrowing places. The titular novel, then, mostly becomes just one component of a larger cache of allusions to black art that the film gathers while sketching out the persona of its young punk protagonist: Brad Brains, DEATH, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, etc. Native Son does eventually work its way up to joining the artistic themes & ambitions of those sources of inspiration; you just have to give it time to break free from its Sundance Drama beginnings to evolve into a full-blown American nightmare. I guess A24 assumes most of its potential audience just won’t have that patience. Honestly, they’re probably right, but it’s still always frustrating to see these solid festival-circuit indies fade so quickly into digital streaming obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

There’s an incredible sequence in Spike Lee’s latest provocation, BlacKkKlansman, that fills the screen with the gorgeous, rapt faces of young black attendees of a Civil Rights rally as they listen to a Black Power speech in stunned, inspired awe. The actors are framed in a formalist, lyrical manner that more closely resembles the portraiture of fine art photography than the usual methods & tones of narrative filmmaking. If Beale Street Could Talk extends the fine art portraiture of that one sequence to establish the commanding ethos of its entire runtime. The most arresting, meaningful stretches of Barry Jenkins’s latest feature are composed entirely of contemplative, black faces staring down the barrel of the camera as the (Oscar-nominated) music swells to match the beauty & tragedy of their isolated portraits. It’s an unusual storytelling tool for cinema, outside maybe art installation videos running on loop in a modern art gallery, but it’s something Jenkins also employed to great effect in his previous feature, the Oscar-winning Moonlight. It’s something that feels even more unexpected here than in Moonlight, however, as If Beale Street Could Talk is initially grounded in a much less lyrical, more narratively-bound approach to cinematic storytelling. The portraits-in-motion open the film up to more adventurous, tonally intense modes of storytelling the film initially seems too reserved to explore, the same way BlacKkKlansman’s portraits are one of the first deviations that break it free from its own buddy cop comedy & blacksploitation-throwback genre groves. It’s through those portraits’ quiet beauty & deep sense of hurt that you first get a taste of just how poetic & formally challenging If Beale Street Could Talk is willing to be in time.

The trick to fully appreciating If Beale Street Could Talk‘s poetic lyricism is patience. Whereas Moonlight‘s triptych story structure & general dreamlike stupor immediately announces its value as an Art Film, this follow-up’s own revelation of its poetic nature is more gradual & delicate, like watching a flower bloom. Adapted from an unfinished James Baldwin novel, the film profiles two young lovers in 1970s Harlem whose lives are derailed by a racist justice system when one is imprisoned for a crime he could not have possibly committed. Pregnant at 19 and struggling to fund her would-be husband’s legal defense while he withers in jail, our centering protagonist Tish (KiKi Layne) finds moments of respite & determination in recounting how their young, blossoming love was left to rot on the vine thanks to the bitter, unjust anger of white police in their community. Her voiceover narration & the rigid flashback structure initially dress the film in the appearance of something much more familiar & well-behaved than what’s ultimately delivered. As the picture develops & the petals unfold, If Beale Street Could Talk reveals itself to be a strange, circular, eerily beautiful art piece just as adventurous as the more immediately arresting Moonlight. Characters speak with a weirdly mannered stage play dialogue that stays defiantly true to the literary source material despite its newfound medium. Jazz, sculpture, fashion, and poetry swirl in the foreground to construct a portrait of black Harlem at its most beautiful & alive, while a larger American menace (mainly racist cops & white landlords) creeps in to stomp out that romantic, creative spark. Most clearly and intensely, however, it’s the weighty effect of the close-up portraits of characters at their most emotional & vulnerable that really detaches the film from standard cinematic storytelling to something much more ambitious & transcendent, a far cry from the mannered drama it initially projects.

On just a basic level of aesthetic beauty, If Beale Street Could Talk is a soaring achievement. The fashion, music, and portraiture of its vision of 1970s Harlem are an overwhelming sensual experience that fully conveys the romance & heartbreak of its central couple in crisis. It’s initially difficult to gauge exactly how tonally & structurally ambitious the film will become, but by the time Tish is recounting America’s long history of Civil Rights abuses over real-life photographs from our not-too-distant past, it almost feels like an excerpt from the James Baldwin-penned essay film I Am Not Your Negro, a much more structurally radical work from start to end. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s merits as a boundary-testing art piece require patience & trust on the audience’s end, but it’s something Jenkins has earned from us (and then some) with his previous work. And while it may take a while for our eyes to adjust to the full magnitude of what he’s attempting to accomplish here, he fills the frame with plenty of rich, immediate pleasures (and heartbreak) to see us through while the full picture blooms.

-Brandon Ledet