Published on October 9th, 2018 | by Noah Dimitrie0
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins follows the brilliant success of Moonlight with If Beale Street Could Talk. Noah sees the movie and a TIFF Q&A with the director.
The pressures of following up such an unlikely Oscar win as Moonlight must be enormous. Barry Jenkins himself, present at the Monday morning screening for a TIFF Q&A, intimated that very sentiment after he received a lengthy standing ovation for his latest project.
If ever there were to be a film that was pre-emptively pegged a masterpiece, it would be If Beale Street Could Talk. Expectations have been handed down like a fresh hurdle that both the film and Jenkins himself are obliged to overcome. Though he shot down the idea that his creative process was diluted by the awareness of his newfound fame and recognition, citing the film’s screenplay being written concurrently with Moonlight back in 2014, we could all see it in his face and hear it in his voice—the anxiety, the vulnerability, the knowledge that the perception of this film is completely out of his hands, off on some other tier of judgement. And he might be right. But thankfully, his latest feature follows through on the expectations, providing, “a spiritual sequel” (his words), to his previous breakout film that is equally as moving, haunting, and poised.
Beale Street is located in New Orleans, though the film is set in 1960s Harlem. An opening quote from the author of the film’s source material, activist and writer James Baldwin, explains that Beale Street is a metaphor, that every city in America has their own Beale Street, a place where African-American culture comes of age and embeds itself firmly into the roots of the communities of people living there. Often, this cultural identity is sparked by turmoil and oppression. But such was and unfortunately still is the life of so many people of color in the West. This is what Jenkins is capturing with his film; through emotional signifiers and suggestive imagery, the story of two lovers and their fight for a simple, honest life together becomes a resounding tone poem with many far-reaching interpretations and messages. It bites off a lot of a weighty ideas, but chews them all with a brilliant sophistication, balancing time jumps and complex montages with confidence and efficient evocation. It’s a complex vision that Jenkins successfully brings to life. That in and of itself is a major feat.
But the film isn’t entirely this giant Terrence Malick wannabe. It has a firm dramatic soul, and for every atmospheric montage of the lovers’ memories and fleeting moments of passion, there are tautly crafted dramatic moments—a lot of smaller, self-contained scenes that build and evolve a complex portrait of a family, a community, and a whole country. The plot revolves around the unjust imprisonment of Fonny (Stephen James) after he is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, who herself is the victim of racialized abuse. The films bobs and weaves back and forth in time, from before the incident occurred to Tish (Kiki Layne) and her family’s attempt to have her lover’s case overturned. We also learn in the first few minutes that Tish has a baby on the way, adding another layer of complexity to a situation that absolutely none of the characters have the time or resources to deal with. Yet they do, with their heads held high.
Come to think of it, most of the conflict in the film is set up within the first fifteen minutes. Jenkins’ does not beat around the bush, knowing perfectly well that the film is not about the unjust accusations themselves or the trials and tribulations to get him out. Instead, he finds greater meaning in the small moments, guiding you to read in between the parallel lines of conflict and action. The plot is the backdrop that adds tension and makes us hang on the characters’ every word, but ultimately, Jenkins has made a tone poem about love—a requiem for its survival through hardship, a glimpse at the unfortunate, warped beauty in the ways in which these lovers adapt to the situation. In this sense, he grasps onto something greater, something that represents decades of history. Another impressive feat.
The film will most definitely vie for Academy Awards come Oscar season, with Jenkins’ pedigree being heavily flaunted in its marketing (it is AnnaPurna after all). However, where Moonlight was simple, straightforward, and contemporary, Beale Street is more obtuse, less of a gut punch and more of a small incision in which the pure emotion of decades of social turmoil is slowly absorbed into the blood stream. It sat with me for days, and I often found myself recalling little moments that added to its resonant mosaic of the black experience.
But as for awards, I think it will test many viewers patience. There are no shocking twists, no contrived moments of melodrama that double as go-to Awards Show clips. The only thing that feels remotely like Oscar bait is the befuddling inclusion of notable celebrities like Dave Franco and Pedro Pascal, who both only appear in one scene and whose performances reek of, “we need some names to market this thing.”
There’s also the occasional hammy line—usually an overly dramatic line-reading; a probable symptom of acting with the awareness of the kind of movie one is appearing in. Yet, that is a minor distraction, a perhaps necessary but ultimately conservative compromise to ensure the film reaches its audience. If the film does connect with Oscar viewers, it will most likely be through Regina King’s performance as Tish’s mother; the actress adds a necessary gusto and strong-headedness to the pursuit of freeing Fonny. Come awards season she could fit in nicely as a kind of backhanded way of The Academy saying, “This movie isn’t accessible enough, but its ‘important ™’ so we’ll give you Best Supporting Actress.” But I digress.
Overall, this is a significant step in the career of one of America’s most promising young auteurs. Jenkins has shown with this film the ability to not only brush off the expectations and the big studio offers, but also to push himself formally. The movie is a sprawling narrative, crafted with the texture of a real epic. It finds beauty in small moments that no other artistic medium would be able to expose. And in doing so, it forms one of the most compelling portrayals not just of racism, but of the pursuit of happiness, the beauty and meaning one finds in within disarray. It’s surprisingly uplifting. And it may not win Best Picture, but it quite possibly could be shown in future history classes throughout the U.S. Now that is an impressive feat.