Dan's Review: Jenkins' Poetic Style Shines in "If Beale Street Could Talk"
Jan 03, 2019 05:25PM
By Dan Metcalf
KiKi Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk - © 2018 Annapurna Pictures.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna Pictures)
Rated R for language and some sexual content.
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Finn Wittrock, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Dave Franco, Milanni Mines, Ethan Barrett.
Written by Barry Jenkins, based on "If Beale Street Could Talk" by James Baldwin.
Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Filmmaking is a very fluid form of art, moving deftly between pure “eye candy” entertainment to deeper inspiration. Similarly, jazz is to music as poetry is to literature; a subtle shift from a simple narrative to mood-inducing reflection. Barry Jenkins, the writer-director of 2016’s acclaimed Moonlight is an up-and-coming artist who seems more than capable of turning a film into a beautiful form of art, like a poem set to the perfect jazz ensemble. His latest project is If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same title.
It’s a love story between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephan James). Set in the 1970s, the young couple encounters many of the pitfalls you'd expect by African-Americans in New York, during a time when poverty, crime, and racism were part of everyday life. As their romance blossoms in this environment, Fonny is arrested on a false rape charge and awaits trial in jail. Shortly after, Tish discovers she’s pregnant with Fonny’s child and breaks the news to her mother (Regina King), father (Colman Domingo) and sister (Teyonah Parris), all of whom welcome the idea of bringing a new baby into the group. Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) take the news much worse, calling down the condemnation of God on the “unholy” act that produced the child. Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach) sides with Tish’s family as the group works to help the young couple. The bigger problem is Fonny’s legal defense, which rests on finding the Puerto-Rican woman who was forced to implicate the young man at the urging of a racist police officer (Ed Skrein). Tish’s mom goes on a quest to Puerto Rico to find the faulty accuser, in hopes that she will recant. As the baby’s birth draws near, Fonny faces harsh realities in jail, leading to a troubling choice.
If Beale Street Could Talk is like a fine, cinematic poem, with beautiful photography and a soothing and ethereal soundtrack (from Nicholas Britell). Cinematographer James Laxton’s camera angles (in which Tish and Fonny speak directly into the lens) gives the film a more personal angle as if the characters are sharing more than a story; they are sharing themselves, providing deep insight to their joys, pain, and optimism for a better future. This kind of “film poetry” might be a little offsetting for some and may not resonate with audiences looking for a more linear narrative, but it’s beautiful, nonetheless.
KiKi Layne and Stephan James are perfectly cast as the young lovers trying to become a family amidst all the cultural strife, and Regina King anchors the fine cast with the best performance of her career.
Barry Jenkin’s style is distinct and poetic, to be sure. If you enjoy cinema that reaches the depths of your mood and feeling instead of overloading your senses If Beale Street Could Talk is the perfect venue.
I could fill this review with a discussion on racism and how the film might be applied to the current sociopolitical climate, but I will refrain since I believe the story of If Beale Street Could Talk is universally relevant as a work of art, no matter when or where it’s experienced. Good art doesn’t have to have all the answers. Sometimes, it’s just an experience.
If Beale Street Could Talk Trailer