Barry Jenkins ensures we hear the love and empathy of Baldwin’s work loud and clear
Barry Jerkins’ second film, Moonlight, announced him as a director of formidable talent. If there was even the slightest hint of doubt about his ability to follow up such an emotionally rich film he removes them with his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. He tells stories of love with such open honesty and affection for his characters it’s impossible not to be swept up into the empathetic worlds he creates.
Although Jenkins brings a novel composed almost 45 years ago to the screen, like so much written about black life in America decades ago it has an ugly truth that still rings loud and clear. Jenkins keeps the story of Tish (Kiki Lange) and Fonny (Stephan James) in the mid-70s period but it’s one that is timeless and devastatingly heartbreaking. Not just because of the trauma experienced by a young black couple, but also the weight of history and injustice that has been imposed upon them and countless others.
The film opens with an excerpt from Baldwin’s book where he says: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” Tish and Fonny have known each other their whole lives, which adds to the sensitivity of their coming together as a couple. Jenkins shows the small details of their love and tenderness for each other that ensures their bond remains intact even when Fonny is wrongly imprisoned for a brutal crime he didn’t commit.
With Fonny trapped inside it is left to Tish to announce to her family she is expecting their child. Her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) offer the support she needs and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) tells her to unbow her head and sit with pride about the news. In the mood for celebration they invite Fonny’s family over to share the joy but aside from his father, Frank (Michael Beach), they sternly judge and scorn Tish for falling foul of their strict religious beliefs by conceiving outside of wedlock.
Jenkins weaves a combination of Baldwin’s text from the book into his own interpretation, the voice of Tish wisely narrating her thoughts and recollections as time passes by. Where Moonlight was divided into three sections of a young man’s evolution, here Jenkins moves between the present day where Fonny is incarcerated, and the past, showing us how their love blossomed while they made plans for a future together. In doing so it clearly contrasts the hope of what they were building, against where they are now and the systematic forces attempting to destroy them.
There is a quiet anger that constantly burns in the background of the narrative of this young couple. On a number of occasions Jenkins returns to black and white still photographs to provide a broader historical context of the barriers that stunt the progression of too many people of colour in America. Jenkins highlights the ugliness that marks the poorer areas of the city and the lives of those trying to find a way out. “The game has been rigged,” says Fonny, as if just living life without being constantly made aware of the colour of your skin isn’t hard enough already.
Yet, If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t a morose tragedy. Tish and Fonny stand defiant despite all that is being thrown at them and within her family, particularly her mother and father, we can see why Tish is so grounded and filled with determination. Whether it’s welcoming an old friend like Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) into their humble abode and serving up food and drink without hesitation, or upholding the family unit in the most distant of environments, Jenkins shows us there is always love, joy, laughter and a sense of community in spite of the hardships.
The sweeping shots of sun-kissed brownstone buildings are reminiscent of moments seen in many a Spike Lee film which makes it feel like a place that is fondly remembered. That glowing warmth emanates not only through James Laxton’s lush cinematography that has definite shades of Wong Kar-wai, but also in Nicholas Britell’s gorgeous score that is complemented with subtle use of soulful jazz and blues songs. There is humanity almost everywhere you look in the film and sometimes it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of its scale.
And yet all of this has been said without a single mention of the cast. An impeccable ensemble of performers have been handpicked with everyone suiting their roles perfectly. Both Layne and James should be expecting a host of award nominations in the coming months. Layne in particular seems to carry the entire emotional weight on her face throughout. Jenkins’ head-on shots have this wonderful ability to make us instantly empathise with his characters because it goes beyond just looking into their eyes – they reveal something of their souls and inner selves to the camera.
Jenkins is only three films into his career and already he has delivered two absolute cinematic masterclasses. Here he gives us a beautiful story about love that everyone can connect with while shading it with the ongoing oppression that has ruined even stronger bonds than Tish and Fonny’s. He has brought alive the chatter of Beale Street and communicates it to us all with resounding clarity.
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