If Beale Street Could Talk is proof that the director of Moonlight is here to radically re-shape cinema
How do you follow up a movie like Moonlight? 2016’s crowning cinematic achievement heralded the arrival of an urgent new perspective in director Barry Jenkins, and won three Oscars to prove as much, including Best Picture. If Moonlight struck the culture like a bolt of blue lightning, then Jenkins’ follow-up is more of a contained blaze, that cements Jenkins’ status as a new-establishment leader when it comes to powerful, dramatic cinema with purpose.
Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name – the first film adaptation of any of Baldwin’s works – If Beale Street Could Talk opens with a quote from Baldwin: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” The impression, first and foremost, is that this story is not just a James Baldwin story, nor is it the story of Tish Rivers and Alzonso “Fonny” Hunt (played Kiki Layne and Stephan James), the young couple at the center of this movie. It could be the story of any black person in America. Too often, it tragically is.
The story of course, is that of Fonny's sudden incarceration after he's pegged falsely by a racist cop (Ed Skrein) for a crime he didn't commit: he’s been accused of raping of a Puerto Rican woman in the Lower East Side. Fonny lives in Greenwich Village, and Tish lives with her parents in Harlem. Jenkins beautifully depicts a wistful New York of the 1970s, full of grime and glimmering orange streetlights, sunsets dusking over the Hudson and itinerant city jazz, submerging us into the budding romance of two beguiling young leads. It’s an old-fashioned kind of romance, filled with tenderness and respect, innocence and bashfulness, which makes the inevitable tragedy all the more haunting.
As with Moonlight, Jenkins worked on Beale Street with cinematographer James Laxton, who suffuses each scene with deep, divine colour and a shallow depth of field that gives palpability and realness to the couple’s close encounters. Center-punched portraits of the characters, as they stare straight into the camera, draw us deeper into their vulnerability in stretches that serve as the story's visual spine, so much so that this type of intimacy is often favoured over more actionable sequences.
Despite a deliberate build-up of tension between Fonny and the police officer, as well as a series of procedural discussions about alibis and witnesses, we never witness the actual arrest. Perhaps Jenkins is making a political choice not to show the same type of police racism that has been visible for far too long, but in doing so, he robs the story of its central dramatic incident, and forces us to take the characters at their word. We never question Fonny’s innocence, which is a testament to the affection we have for the character.
This isn't to say this movie is without drama. In a scene anyone familiar with the book will remember, Tish invites Fonny’s family over to deliver the good news of her pregnancy, only to be met with a mixed reaction, to put it lightly. The theatrics delivered by Aunjanue Ellis as Mrs. Hunt, a flamboyant Holy Roller possessed with the fear of God, make for one of the film’s most amusing scenes. The dialogue between Tish’s sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) and Hunt’s daughters crackles with venom. The words are lifted straight from the novel, as is the narration and much of the dialogue in the movie, a testament to Jenkins’ reverence for the Baldwin estate and the words of the author himself. The faithfulness of the adaptation should encourage the powers that be to allow more interpretations of the author's work, which could yield something of a rapture, should anyone attempt such awesome texts as Giovanni's Room or Another Country.
It’s likely that Jenkins could have taken on any project of his choosing following his victories at the Academy Awards – an enviable position that, nevertheless, comes with a lot of pressure. In choosing to adapt a James Baldwin story with a relevant social message at its centre, Jenkins chose to move in a direction that was tonally safe, while also taking on a whole other set of pressures, in being the first to transpose the work of a hallowed literary titan to the screen. The good news is that he succeeds with flying colours.
The movie could have used fewer celebrity cameos (Dave Franco as a real estate agent, Diego Luna as a bartender, Pedro Pascal as the father of the accuser, and the list goes on…). At times, certain scenes also felt so stage-y as to play like set-ups from a theatre production, the natural grandeur of Moonlight missing in the claustrophobic city.
But, most pressingly, If Beale Street Could Talk is a luscious piece of contained cinema that builds worlds of emotional depth with a steady artistic control that offers us a specific reassurance in chaotic times. Barry Jenkins may have touched down like a bolt from the heavens with Moonlight, but this movie stations him as an important director who’s here for the long haul.