Synopsis – A woman in Harlem embraces her pregnancy while she and her family struggle to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime.
My Take – Like myself, if you are still scrambling to find the time to catch up with films you missed last year, while stumbling upon newer releases, here’s another one to add up. Three years ago, Moonlight, an Indie film upon release send shock waves through the film world by winning the Best Picture at the Academy Awards, instead of the well-defined favorite, the Damien Chazelle directed romantic musical, La La Land. A prestige the film deserved as visionary film-maker Barry Jenkins had brilliantly captures the taboo themes presented, in such a sublimely poetic, passionate and the righteously angry manner, that it became easily accessible to everyone.
Needless to say, it seemed natural that director Jenkins settled on adapting author James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, as his follow up, as he has earned himself a reputation for making films that are not just about love, but are in themselves love letters to the audience. And this film is both a love story and one suffused by love for its characters, as well as the world in which they’re trying to get by. And like anyone would have guessed it, the film is excellent and is everything one could hope a follow-up to Moonlight would be.
Here, director Jenkins has made a romantic film whose drama may fiddle around the borders of racism and inequality but its heart lies on demanding answers from humanity. Initially, one would presume it to be a film about racism, but there is a lot more to explore than social satire, personally the soothing affectionate love that flows throughout the film spoke to me the most.
It also didn’t come as a surprise that film managed to garner itself some nominations (like Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Music Score), at this year’s Oscars and ended up walking with a Best Supporting Actress win for Regina King. I would recommend this film to everyone who is looking for some serious piece of a cinema, as here director Jenkins has used his skill set to make a sumptuously shot, delicately layered and beautifully composed symphony of love, hope, tragedy, sacrifice and communal bonding, in simpler terms, an emotionally resonant fable.
Set in 1970s New York, the story follows Tish (Kiki Layne), a 19-year-old woman, who one day realizes that Alonzo (Stephan James), her childhood friend, who everyone calls “Fonny,” is in love with her. The pair grew up together in Harlem, where Tish lives with her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Fonny grew up there, too, with his alcoholic father (Michael Beach), an unforgiving rigid mother (Aunjanue Ellis), and judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).
But now he lives downtown, where he makes sculptures and eats at a local Spanish restaurant run by his friend, Pedrocito (Diego Luna). Tish often joins him there and continues to walk through the neighborhood’s streets and, soon, discovers that she has been in love with him too. However, things take a turn when Fonny is arrested by Office Bell (Ed Skrein), a beat cop, as he has been identified as the assailant by a Puerto Rican woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), who was raped across town.
While Tish knows he couldn’t have done it as the timing and geography don’t work out, Fonny is sent to jail anyway. With the couple now expecting their first child, Tish races against time to prove his innocence and seeks support from her family who help her throughout her pregnancy and with the case led by Hayward (Finn Wittrock), a young lawyer trying to catch a break.
The film carries on in a non-linear fashion, flitting between romance’s heady rush and a separation that seems hopeless. Following the great success of his 2016 film Moonlight is no easy feat. The movie was exquisite: every shot added meaning, the heartbreak was visceral and the score was divine. Thankfully, this one is a wonderful accompaniment to its predecessor. In terms of craft, this one is a confident step forward for director Jenkins. It’s a rapturously beautiful film full of powerful images captured by a disembodied camera that floats, glides, and contemplates.
Here, director Jenkins creates a potently intimate and romantic atmosphere around his two leads who together glow like a flame warding off the darkness of their time. At times feeling like a tone poem or a lyrical plaint: though director Jenkins’s filmmaking is near-perfect and the film’s images are indelible, without Baldwin’s prose it may scan more as a series of vignettes than a narrative feature film. But it’s nonetheless hard not to fall under the film’s somber, lustrous spell.
While its first half is gripping family drama, resisting the obvious judgements of the society, the second half grows more head to head and this deep dive of characterization of his characters is where director Jenkins steals the show.
The film’s strongest sequences come when Tish and Fonny are first discovering themselves in each other’s arms. One of the finest bits of the film is when Tish narrates her version of the world. It is so finely detailed and beautiful written that all of it gets in your bones within a snap. Tish’s wistful voice over narration seems drawn from the same luminous source as its images, shot by Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton.
As in Moonlight, sometimes Tish and Fonny look directly into the camera, into our eyes, daring us not to look away, letting us fall in love with them. Mixed with a haunting score, the result is a blend of joy, compassion, and deep sadness. Her job description is something that will stay with you throughout the course of the film. Another standout scene is where we see Sharon preparing to meet Fonny’s accuser, Victoria Rogers, and contemplating how to present herself. Does she wear a wig or her natural hair? Without any dialogue, King’s performance is a proud affirmation of blackness.
As if answering or pre-empting such criticism, here, director Jenkins litters his film with harsh, ugly still photographs: police cruelty, black bodies caged, and grim faces of apprehension. None of this is as powerful as when, in a flashback, Fonny shares a drink with Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just been released from jail, and in a tumble of pain details what awaits Fonny: “When you’re in there, they can do with you whatever they want.”
From a technical standpoint, the film is sophisticated filmmaking throughout. The images aren’t just gorgeously rendered but are more than capable of narrating the entire story without any verbal exposition. Director Jenkins‘ technique of characterizing the setting or settings where his films are set is put to great use here. New York City feels almost like a character in this film, as it adds a rich tapestry to the film’s narrative.
This sense is heightened further when paired with a meticulous sound design, where even simple and day-to-day sounds like a subway car rolling into the station enhance the viewing experience. The unhurried pacing is deliberate yet may not appease all while Nicholas Britell‘s stirring score is as fitting as it is emotionally evocative.
Though as wonderful as the style is and as crucial as I see it to be for the film, it can occasionally become a tad overbearing. Some scenes can drag and come off as a bit too self-indulgent. And the central relationship, while undeniably tender and well-acted, edges slightly into over-idealization as we’re shown scene after scene of swooning love declarations and longing gazes. This creates a syrupy quality that somewhat lessens the impact of the heavy social themes at the film’s core.
Coming to the performances, the central performances from newcomer Kiki Layne and Stephan James are brilliant, and there’s unforgettable support from veterans Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents; and Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s friend. In smaller roles, Teyonah Parris, Ed Skrein, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Diego Luna, Dave Franco, Pedro Pascal, Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne are quite effective. On the whole, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a heartbreaking drama which works due to its perfect amalgamation of polished direction, sincere writing, arresting photography, mesmerizing score & committed performances.
Directed – Barry Jenkins
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes