If Beale Street Could Talk
Just in case anyone had concerns that Moonlight was a fluke, here comes Barry Jenkins two years later with one hell of a haymaker for a follow-up. Based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is another rumination on race relations in America, this time set in the early 1970s. The civil rights movement has come and gone, but things haven’t exactly turned hunky dory, as the city of New York is still heavily compromised by institutional racism. Some of the people in power may be a bit upset about the potential balance of power and what that might mean for decades of comfort at the expense of their black brethren.
For those who have not read the novel and kept mum on the film’s plot details, its beginning feels rather quaint and lovely. It’s the story of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), a 19 year old girl who finds herself pregnant just as her boyfriend, Fonny (Stephan James) has been sent to jail for an unknown crime. Obviously, that’s going to factor into things eventually (as one would assume), but we mostly live in a hazy world of love and devotion, seeing Tish and Fonny falling in love and Tish revealing her pregnancy to her family to, let’s say, mixed response. We see the moment of conception, an act of gentle care (Jenkins really has a way with love scenes, folks). Even though there is glass separating them when she tells him they’re having a child, you can see the joy on his face.
And then we see how Fonny ended up in jail and If Beale Street Could Talk takes a hard right turn. He’s been fingered for the rape of a young Puerto Rican woman, though the location of the rape making it essentially impossible that he committed the crime. And despite the best efforts of Tish and her family, the woman has returned to Puerto Rico with no way for them to check her story and find the holes that will set him free. Everyone knows he’s been sent up the river on a trumped up charge, but no one has the means, the money or (to be honest) the skin color to set it right. The world is against them, and the world is very much winning.
Much like Moonlight, the brunt of the storytelling lies in the actors and their performances, with Layne leading the line by offering a tender and often quietly devastating performance. As a woman of just 19, barely more than a girl, she has to contend with the ire of her mother (Regina King), disappointed that she would be impregnated out of wedlock, only to immediately have the man she bonded with so deeply taken away from her. King has gotten the majority of the plaudits for her work here, and with good reason, but don’t sleep on what Layne’s managed to accomplish in her first feature film role. As her counterpart in love, James is tasked with weighing a sort of commanding masculinity with tenderness (he’s the older person in the relationship, and could easily be perceived as taking advantage of her like her mother believes). And last, but certainly not least, is the actor of 2018, Brian Tyree Henry (he of Widows and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Atlanta), who arrives for a bravura sequence to talk about his time in jail and the humanity that was taken from him in what is almost certainly the best single scene in any film this year.
Despite Henry’s fireworks, make no mistake, this is not some flashy Spike Lee screed on racial animus (not that that would be a problem); the soulful and ponderous approach Jenkins showed in Moonlight is still very much in place here. He once again collaborates with Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton, who once again makes heavy use of repeated static close-ups to note how the passing of time and events of the film slowly erode the will, if not the spirit, of the characters (James is the greatest beneficiary of this approach here). And composer Nicholas Britell, whose Moonlight score was one of the absolute highlights of the last decade of film music, has returned with another stunner, generating so much empathy and emotion through the use of piano and strings. If there’s any justice, we’ll continue to see these three collaborate as often as possible in the future, as the style and the substance and the sound goes so far to set the table for these films.
It’s plain that Barry Jenkins is a special, special filmmaker, the sort of talent that only comes along a couple times in a generation. Over two years and two films, he’s made an indelible mark on the industry and the art form. It wouldn’t be fair to compare Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, as both are more than deserving of standing on their own. But Jenkins approaches both, each a different side of the same coin, each looking at the margins of culture and black culture within that culture, with a care that permeates every frame. He pays the utmost respect to James Baldwin’s source material, and has managed to once again make one of the absolute best movies of the year. It’s not always easy to watch, but If Beale Street Could Talk is a stirring reminder of the power and importance of the cinematic art form.