(2018—Director: Barry Jenkins)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“You ready for this?”
“I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life.”
Potential spoilers below
Few will forget that infamous moment (see here and here) at the tail end of the 89th Academy Awards. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s smash musical drama La La Land was announced as the Best Picture winner by mistake, rather than actual winner Moonlight, the homosexuality-themed coming-of-age drama from writer-director Barry Jenkins. This incident not only linked the two films forever, but cast a looming shadow over whatever projects their directors planned on pursuing next. As it turns out, both had movies set for 2018 and, to little surprise yet with much disappointment, both critically-acclaimed movies have underwhelmed at the box office and will likely come away with just some nominations and even less wins this awards season.
Still, neither Chazelle nor Jenkins’ features deserved such diminished overall performances upon release. Chazelle’s First Man, which intertwines astronaut Neil Armstrong’s path to becoming the first to set foot on the Moon with the loss of his young daughter, remains quietly and coldly impressive and the tender score by Justin Hurwitz numbers among its best traits. Jenkins, meanwhile, turned to If Beale Street Could Talk (henceforth shortened to Beale Street), the 1974 novel by the late prominent Black American social critic James Baldwin. With the strong chemistry of its two leads, commendable turns by an expansive supporting cast (including steady presence Regina King and one-scene wonder Brian Tyree Henry), gorgeous color cinematography by James Laxton, and an unforgettable score by Nicholas Britell, Barry Jenkins could not have asked for a better follow-up to Moonlight.
It is early 1970s Harlem: 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) are deeply in love. Through occasional voiceover, Tish remembers how she and Fonny, best friends since childhood, dreamed of and worked towards marriage. Much to their dismay, this dream gets derailed when a cop (Ed Skrein) arrests Fonny for a rape he did not commit.
Oh, and there is more news: Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child.
Right from the start of If Beale Street Could Talk, James Laxton’s gorgeous color cinematography hovers over Tish and Fonny as they take a leisurely stroll. Strongly reminiscent of the opening to the 1957 Soviet film The Cranes Are Flying, Beale Street’s opening establishes the passionate romance at once. It also signals, given The Cranes Are Flying allusion, a certain ruin on the horizon that awaits them and other Black Americans.
Once Fonny gets detained, Beale Street takes on a more Jackie-esque poise. Assisted wonderfully by James Laxton’s smoldering camerawork, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders’ careful editing, and especially Nicholas Britell’s lush and brassy score, writer-director Jenkins thrusts audiences into a haze of pre-arrest romantic bliss mingled with post-arrest mounting dread. Tish and her family’s concern for both the baby and Fonny’s costly legal support (Finn Wittrock) does incorporate some legal thriller notes. Yet the contrasting atmospheres Beale Street presents—a surreal nostalgia for the sensual early phase of Tish and Fonny’s relationship and a bleak present search for a legal breakthrough—gradually get audiences to realize that fulfilling life aspirations and a resolution to dire circumstances are often mirages for Black Americans.
Beale Street features two particular bright spots to offset its somewhat anticlimactic turns later in its runtime. One is a brief performance by Brian Tyree Henry, in one of his six acting appearances in 2018 (including White Boy Rick and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). As Daniel, Fonny’s friend who finished a stint behind bars, Henry gives a deep and sobering midpoint monologue to Fonny on the unspeakable horrors of prison, punctuated brilliantly by a sound cut to a nearby Tish, who was listening the whole time.
The second bright spot is Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon. From her first moment of screentime—writer-director Jenkins and d.p. Laxton seamlessly shifting from medium shot to direct close-up stare—Ms. King provides all the firm kindness a big-screen mother should. When the presumptive Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis) curses her own grandchild to Tish’s face, fellow new grandmother Sharon chastises her while distinguishing between Tish and Fonny’s unwise sexual relations (shown in an early extended scene and later briefly again, both semi-explicit) and the new life thus conceived. King’s shining moment is the Puerto Rico sequence, where she seeks and tries to persuade the presumed rape victim (Emily Rios) to reconsider accusing Fonny. In the gripping scene where she meticulously adjusts her wig, Sharon’s discernment of what lengths she as a mother should go to is front and center.
Black American cinema fired on all cylinders in 2018. If Beale Street Could Talk was this section of cinema at its most literary, brimming with patient class, enduring romance, and struggles both familial and racial. Barry Jenkins and company succeeds in realizing a story set amongst, while at the same time universes away from, any gritty blaxploitation set and shot around the same period—an accomplishment that matches the soaring notes of Nicholas Britell’s opening cue “Eden”. One can only imagine the grin on the late James Baldwin’s face had he lived to see his work translated with such beauty.
(Parental Note: If Beale Street Could Talk has been rated R by the MPAA “for language and some sexual content”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “infrequent very strong language” and “strong sex”, and A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for “two nonmarital sexual encounters, brief upper female nudity, momentary domestic abuse, a few racial slurs, and fleeting rough language.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.