Did White Shame Hurt This Black Film’s Oscar Shot?
In a banner year for black cinema and race-themed films, Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and the controversial Green Book all managed to do what If Beale Street Could Talk couldn’t: score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
How did Beale Street get left out in the cold? The answer might lie partly in a 10-minute scene about 46 minutes into the film that basically characterizes hell as white people.
A few months ago, before the year-end onslaught of Academy Award hopefuls hit cinemas, Beale Street had “Oscar-caliber” written all over it. But then the nominations were announced on January 21, and the critically lauded film missed the Best Picture shortlist. If Beale Street could talk, it probably would have said, “I shoulda woulda coulda been a contender.”
That’s not really hubris: The acclaimed film has a 95 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (higher than five of the Best Picture nominees), and it was directed by Barry Jenkins, the man who gave us Moonlight, the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner. That movie also earned him a Best Director nod and a Best Original Screenplay win.
Jenkins’ follow-up opus, based on a 1974 novel by James Baldwin, felt like the surest of shots after one of its stars, Regina King, grabbed nearly all of the Best Supporting Actress critics prizes as well as a Golden Globe. But somehow, when the Academy weighed in, Beale Street ended up on the sidelines with three second-tier nods (supporting actress, adapted screenplay, and original score).
Explosive truth bombs
The scene that may have helped seal Beale Street’s Oscar fate features two characters laying out the hopelessness of being black in an America where there are no white saviors, no redemption, no happy endings — all things that make race-themed movies more palatable to the masses.
In a film that manipulates white shame and guilt without mitigating either, the harsh assessment of the racial power dynamic in the U.S. spares no-one on the side of privilege. If it made me, a black man, squirm, I wonder how its brutal take on white vs. black affected white viewers accustomed to seeing onscreen racism from a comfortable distance.
If it made me, a black man, squirm, I wonder how its brutal take on white vs. black affected white viewers accustomed to seeing onscreen racism from a comfortable distance.
The scene plays out like a jazz duet in which two soloists improvise separate but equal melodies. One has just served two years for car theft, and the other is about to wake up in his own prison nightmare where he’s wrongfully accused of rape, complicating his lifelong romance with Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne).
“This country really do not like n*****s man. They don’t like n*****s so bad, they’ll rent to a leper before they’ll rent to a n****r,” the soon-to-be-incarcerated Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) says early in the scene.
Fonny’s truth bomb, so loud, so clear, sets up the one that’s about to explode minutes later.
“The white man has got to be the devil,” parolee Daniel Carty (Bryan Tyree Henry) announces with heartbreaking resignation. Boom!
Whether one agrees with that overarching indictment of white people, it’s a shocking pronouncement for a movie that hopes to appeal to them. It could have come straight from the pen of Spike Lee, the iconoclastic black director who just scored his first Best Director Oscar nod, for BlacKkKlansman. Nearly 30 years ago, Do the Right Thing, Lee’s most acclaimed and uncompromising film, missed out on an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, a prize that went to an exponentially safer race-themed film: Driving Miss Daisy.
That drama about a rich white woman and her black driver becoming besties set the tone for Oscar-bait movies about race for decades to come. This year’s Best Picture nominee Green Book tweaks the Driving Miss Daisy formula by making the black man the boss, then it ticks all of the necessary boxes for mass Caucasian appeal: White savior/“student” who learns to be more accepting? Check. Wise Negro? Check. “Kumbaya” finale? Check.
Moments of textbook racism are peppered throughout, but at the end, white viewers can pat themselves on the back for a job well done: “See, not all of us are devils.”
Oscar’s black list
Sometimes, though, it helps to put the devil in the details. In race-themed movies like the 2013 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave and Best Picture nominees like Django Unchained, Get Out, and BlacKkKlansman, the white antagonists are broad and unredeemable. White audiences can look down on them as everything they’re not, and in the case of slavery films, be grateful times have changed.
Beale Street, however, shows us how times haven’t changed. Most black Americans already knew that, but it might be a harder pill for white audiences to swallow whole. It could explain the muted fanfare that greeted Beale Street. Despite uniformly glowing reviews, it’s only earned just over $11 million at the box office since its December 14 release.
Black Panther was last year’s proof that predominantly black casts do not automatically turn off white audiences. As for the Oscar voters who determine the Best Picture contenders, movies like Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fences, Moonlight, and Black Panther might be more palatable because the characters in them don’t face obstacles that are a slightly darker shade of pale. None of those Best Picture nominees hold up a mirror to white people.
Aside from a few minor roles, white is mostly absent from Beale Street — yet it looms over the movie. The white cop who sets the wheels of injustice in motion appears only briefly, but his racism hangs over the proceedings like a black cloud. Meanwhile, three separate scenes offer commentary on white male lust for “brown sugar,” echoing slavery’s rape legacy.
The movie, like BlacKkKlansman, may be set in the early ’70s, but it’s drenched with the spirit of #MeToo. By making the rape victim Latina and borderline sympathetic, it complicates how viewers are supposed to feel about her. It’s harder to shame and blame her the way we can with Carolyn Bryant, the white woman from Money, Mississippi, whose sexual harassment lie sent a young black teen named Emmet Till to his death in 1955.
The villain of Beale Street is monolithic. It isn’t one person but a racial caste system that has destroyed the spirit and the lives of black Americans since the founding of this country. It’s mostly invisible in If Beale Street Could Talk, but the movie forces us to look at a black-and-white reality that, for many, is still too horrifying to face.