After your movie wins Best Picture, the world is your oyster as a director. Your options are endless as your phone rings off the hook with every studio hoping to work with you. Who knows, maybe you even take that big paycheck to work on a blockbuster project. But If Beale Street Could Talk — Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight — signals that Jenkins mostly decided to stay the course with his brand of humanism — and we’re all better for it.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Barry Jenkins
Written By: Barry Jenkins (screenplay) and James Baldwin (based on the book by)
Living in Harlem with her family and friends, Tish (Layne) quickly learns that she is pregnant. But unlike most women in her position, she feels a sense of relief because she is in love with Fonny (James), the father of the child.
However, though he has a strong alibi and is by all accounts a good citizen, Fonny is accused of raping a woman, causing his arrest and imprisonment. As Tish’s lawyer notes, this case will be a tough one to win given the circumstances, but with the help of her loving mother Sharon (King), Tish exhausts all possibilities to get Fonny out of jail so that he can hold his baby in his arms.
Meet James Baldwin
If you don’t know James Baldwin, it’s about time you do. This possible learning process is precisely what Barry Jenkins was hoping for while working on If Beale Street Could Talk. If you read my recap of the Washington, D.C. premiere of the film (shameless plus), you know that Jenkins has even gone as far saying that you if leave If Beale Street Could Talk thinking of him, that he failed at his job.
Baldwin has been praised for years as a social critic and novelist, most notably for his explorations of mid-20th-century America in terms of race, sex, and class distinctions. He had such a profound impact on Jenkins himself that Jenkins sent his script for the film to the Baldwin estate in 2013 before a discussion of procuring the film rights to the novel ever took place. It’s safe to say that Beale Street is Jenkins’ passion project. Luckily Moonlight was a such a success that it made this film possible.
So before you start rummaging through MovieBabble’s ever-growing archive list for the 1,049th time — I know how INCREDIBLY tempting that is for you — think about picking up a book from James Baldwin. You might just learn a thing or two about society, or at the very least see it differently as Jenkins hopes to do with his film.
Barry Jenkins Does it Again
It became very clear with Moonlight that Jenkins is very much a humanist, diving into the deep-rooted causes of fears, inadequacies, and long-lost dreams. (As a note, I highly suggest that you seek out Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy which acts as a prototype for his movies to come, similar to Christopher Nolan’s Following.) Many would say that Moonlight is one of the best films of this decade, and I certainly wouldn’t mount a defense against that claim in the role of devil’s advocate.
With a bigger budget and a much more robust cast in terms of big-time names, If Beale Street Could Talk is very much another stepping stone for Jenkins, who uses his expanded list of resources to hone his skills ever further.
Jenkins loves getting up close and personal with his actors, pressing the camera lens to their faces and forcing them to emote with a raw, textured look. Such techniques are perfect for the material as this is one of the more emotionally dense films of the year. If Beale Street Could Talk has plenty of moments where characters sit and have fascinating, layered discussions of troubling issues in society. One scene in particular sees Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James talking until the viewer enters a trance-like state of contemplation. Yet these often silent details where the actors peer right at you in the audience are endlessly engrossing and make for some of my favorite moments in the film. These facial expressions with poignant dialogue are sure to get the waterworks flowing.
Jenkins deftly mixes subdued character moments with actions that border on melodrama for a deeply emotional experience. He sucks out every ounce of feeling from his script and spreads it all over the screen.
The Entire Cast Comes to Play
But for Barry Jenkins’ directing style to work, he needs VERY committed actors in his corner that are willing and able to be flexible and vulnerable. But with an amazing cast that has noteworthy actors like Diego Luna in cameo-like roles — who seemingly wanted to work with Jenkins by any means necessary so they took whatever roles they could get their hands on — If Beale Street Could Street has a surplus of talent.
I was rather impressed with Stephan James who you may remember from his performance as Jessie Owens in Race a few years back. With the critically-lauded Amazon Prime series Homecoming airing last week, it appears we are entering a moment in James’ career. You can see why this might be the case from his performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. The way he effortlessly moves from positions of strength and suavity to weakness and helpless is pretty outstanding. He anchors the movie as the subject from which the movie’s themes create a greater societal discussion.
Most people will come out of If Beale Street Could Talk raving about the performances from newcomer KiKi Layne and cast matriarch Regina King, and for good reason! Layne’s character is incredibly pure, almost virginal. She carries herself with such grace and humility, making the film’s quest for justice that much more compelling. Her mother, played by the aforementioned King, is a wrecking ball as she fights for her loved ones. I fully expect her name to be in contention for Best Supporting Actress in the coming months.
If Beale Street Could Talk Beautifully Tackles Tough Issues
By all accounts, If Beale Street Could Talk is a faithful adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, so clearly it has a few things on its mind. I admire Jenkins for tackling these issues with a level head, expressing his outrage while also providing imagery and character actions that speak louder than anyone on their soapbox could ever hope.
The film attacks the grey area of societal problems, showing that while there are certainly injustices in this world (along with some incredibly scummy people) that there are multiple sides to each issue. While someone may feel wronged, other people involved in the situation may have their own problems for which they are looking for answers. Shaming is not part of If Beale Street Could Talk’s rhetoric. It elevates the level of discourse surrounding prison reform and rape to an extraordinarily intelligent level.
This film is made from a place of love and compassion. Those feelings seep into every frame. It’s the kind of movie that aspires to greatness for all people. I’m so thankful that such a movie exists in 2018.
Deeply moving and intelligently crafted, If Beale Street Could Talk is a continuation of Barry Jenkins’ amazing gifts as a creator, showing that he’s going to make some of Hollywood’s most interesting and heartfelt movies for years to come. Jenkins handles every moment with such grace and love that one can’t help but empathize for the characters and their greater importance in society and culture. It’s the perfect balance of lecture and emotional impact, catalyzed by Jenkins’ affinity for capturing beauty in the finer details.
You can bet that If Beale Street Could Talk will be among my favorites of the year.
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