“If Beale Street Could Talk” Movie Review

When in doubt, the love we share with one another will be more than enough to carry us through our trials. Hopefully. This romantic drama initially had its premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won first runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award. Originally scheduled for release on November 30th, Annapurna Pictures instead pushed it back to a limited engagement starting on December 14th, with a fully expanded roll-out on Christmas Day. It has thus far grossed over $8.3 million at the box office against a budget of $12 million, pushing ahead as one of the holiday’s biggest specialty successes. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name by James Baldwin. He apparently wrote the screenplay during a summer trip in Europe before his Oscar-winning drama Moonlight, but only moved ahead once he secured the rights. The author’s famously protective estate granted him permission on account of his personal outreach to them. Set in 1970s Harlem, the story follows two young African-American adults named Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Alonso “Fonny” Hunt, played respectively by Kiki Layne and Stephan James. As the two begin falling in love, Fonny is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman and thrown into jail. Also during this time, Tish learns that she has become pregnant with their baby, and she and her family scramble to prove Fonny’s innocence before the child is born. I loved, loved, loved Barry Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight when it came out in 2016. I more or less consider it to be a flawless film in virtually every department of filmmaking you can think of. It so brilliantly and emphatically explored the lives of characters whom we don’t get to see often portrayed on-screen in an unflinching manner. And ever since the mother of all Oscar ceremony screw-ups, I’ve been eagerly awaiting whatever he would cook up next. Although I haven’t read the eponymous book, I’ve read excerpts from some of James Baldwin’s essays and watched his famous 1968 argument on The Dick Cavett Show. It’s clear that he has a very clear-eyed, informed, yet empathetic view of race relations in America that match up perfectly to the director’s sensibilities. And it absolutely works because, while it may not quite be as good as his previous film, If Beale Street Could Talk is still a masterful examination of genuine relationships. I have no doubt that Jenkins has a deep and abiding respect for the author and his work, as this feels like a labor of love from the very first frame. What’s particularly impressive is that he’s able to use this 1970s-set story as a way to examine the relevant issues that many African-Americans face today. From racist cops to workplace discrimination, sexism, and prison reform, If Beale Street Could Talk feels like has a lot to say, and is more verbal about it than Moonlight was about masculinity and homophobia. But between the cracks in the fundamental unfairness of life, he’s still able to find true romance and happiness in the smaller moments. Whether it’s a rainy night inside Fonny’s old apartment or when the couple finally finds a new place to move in together, we’re given several moments to breathe. It’s also funnier than Moonlight, as a number of characters find unique humor in certain situations. And quite frankly, without these elements, I think I’d feel overwhelmed. Kiki Layne is as much of a discovery as Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, and I mean that in the best way possible. She is incredible at internalizing a lot of pent-up anger and fear and sadness by the discrimination she and her loved ones face on a regular basis, and the way she finally releases it is devastating. Opposite her is Stephan James, who’s equally impressive and tender as Fonny. With a level of vulnerability and emotional sincerity not often given to male leads in romance dramas, we feel his struggle behind bars and in other moments where the two spend time in one another’s arms. They are a perfect on-screen match, creating a believable and tragic romance where we’re rooting for them the whole way. There are numerous supporting players who do great work such as Michael Beach, Coleman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Aunjanue Ellis, Finn Wittrock, Pedro Pascal, Diego Luna, and an unexpected dramatic turn from Dave Franco. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances of Regina King or Brian Tyree Henry. I haven’t seen King in much, but her role as Tish’s loving and determined mother is so affecting, especially in a scene where she tries on a wig. Henry, meanwhile, has been having one hell of a year and his single-scene appearance was so refreshing and energetic. While laughing with Fonny over beer and cigarettes, he has a powerful monologue about the psychological toll that prison took on him, as it does for many other young men. He may have only one scene in the entire movie, but that moment still resonated throughout the rest of the film. And as you might expect, If Beale Street Could Talk finds Barry Jenkins continuing to hone his technical craft like a master. Cinematographer James Laxton moves away from the more elliptical, cinéma vérité approach of Moonlight in favor of something much more formal and precise. The movements in shots is very controlled and confident, and the amazing color palette helps the world of Harlem seem even more alive. There are numerous close-up shots that evoke the work of Jonathan Demme as we get a view inside the characters’ headspace. It matches up perfectly with the editing by Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon. The story bounces between different points in the story, often using certain side-stories to better contextualize what’s going on. It also features historical black-and-white photos in between segments, allowing the film to feel like a real event that might have happened over 40 years ago. The director’s collaborator Nicholas Britell once again provides the musical score, and it’s just as beautiful as the rest of the film. Like their effort together, the score is visceral and brilliant, while not always remaining conventional. It uses instrumentation such as smooth piano and trumpets to evoke music that gives the setting character and life. Strings swell in and out of different songs just as love and hope comes and goes for the protagonists. None of the tracks are really manipulative or aggressively sad or happy. Instead, it’s all seamlessly woven together to create a jazzy, oddly soothing sound that is definitely worth picking up. Much like Moonlight, it’s easy enough for me to see why a lot of people won’t want to watch it. A number of people I know have told me that it looked “too painful to watch” for them. But those who do give it a chance might be surprise by how gentle and empathetic the film actually is with its sensitive subject matter. While it may have issues of general pacing and cohesion, If Beale Street Could Talk is a moving and dynamic love story that never forgets the real world. Barry Jenkins is a true auteur of American cinema and we’re lucky to have him tell us these stories of unconditional love. I absolutely cannot wait to see what else he has in store in the years to come, and the newfound perspective he give audiences.

1 thought on ““If Beale Street Could Talk” Movie Review

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: The 20 Best Films of 2018 | Geek's Landing

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