Life in the System

Shoplifters and If Beale Street Could Talk

The two best films in theatres at the moment both involve characters who brush up against penal systems. This means that both films cannot help being about those systems – their propensity for error, their gargantuan stupidity and power, how they narrow down our tangled lives and motivations to single threads. 

Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk is the follow-up to Moonlight (2016), a film that justified the existence of arthouse theatres. Moonlight told a story about gay working-class black men, one that acknowledged the social forces that shape their lives without reducing them to ciphers of noble suffering, or itself to protest fiction. Beale Street tells a story that you suspect will end badly – a black man falsely accused of sexual assault. But Jenkins’s love for his characters, the precision with which he (unlike the cops) attends to them, makes the film a joyous experience.

In Shoplifters a loose group of scammers and scavengers gets up every day and engages in morally compromised activities  – sex work; bilking the Japanese government; the titular shoplifting  – in a corrupt society where production is untethered to human need or want. In this way they’re exactly like people with jobs, except less nervous. They also take in battered and abandoned kids, and do their best by them, and fail them utterly. (In this way they’re exactly like parents.) The characters live “comfortably, freely, and fairly,” as Manuela Lazic writes in an excellent piece on the film. They make a fragile little semi-family, in some ways beautiful, in others monstrous. At least in the space the characters give each other, while sleeping in a single room, we can see some prefiguring of the kingdom of God, or at least of a decent way of life in a hot, crowded world. If only the cops saw it that way.  

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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