‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Reminds Us of Why Film Exists

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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Reminds Us of Why Film Exists

Jack Julow, writer

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After winning Best Picture for Moonlight in 2016, Barry Jenkins returned to direct his passion project: an adaptation of James Balwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk. After writing the script many years back, Jenkins took the capital from his Oscar glory to make one of the most beautiful films I have had the chance to see. It baffles me that Beale Street failed to secure a Best Picture nomination when it could have easily won against the other nominees —  except maybe Alfonso Cuarón’s passion project, Roma. Jenkin’s latest film stands as a testament to top-notch filmmaking with a piece that will be staying with me for a while. I have already driven a long distance to see this film twice in the theater.

Beale Street chronicles the tragic love story of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Tish begins a relationship with her childhood friend, Fonny, and falls in love with him until he becomes wrongly imprisoned due to a racist police officer. Now, Tish must try to exonerate Fonny before Tish gives birth to Fonny’s baby. Meanwhile, Tish’s mother (Regina King) helps Tish navigate through the confusion and working alongside her daughter and free the boy she helped raise. Regina King stunned me with her performance as Tish’s mother and earned her Golden Globe win for sure. The entire cast acts exceptionally with each actor at the top of their game. Why can’t films always be this well acted?

As for behind the scenes, Jenkins’ Beale Street shares some of the most intimate cinematography and gorgeous close-ups that make it near impossible not to root for Tish and Fonny. The opening scene begins with Nicholas Britell’s lush score, and I knew I was watching a truly special film. Jenkins’ use of the nonlinear narrative propels the movie back and forth between the current issue of Fonny’s wrongful imprisonment and his relationship with Tish before his incarceration. The happy moments intercut with the main conflict bolster a feeling of optimism while other stories may succumb to a sense of hopelessness. In addition, Jenkins employs an element of interspersing scenes with photos from the Civil Rights movement — protesters being hosed down and cops smiling while handcuffing innocent black men — during Tish’s narration. While the film features an almost idyllic feel, Jenkins cleverly reminds his audience of the real threat of racism with a quick cut-away to children in the destroyed Bronx before returning to the action. Jenkins possesses an absolute control of the material with each frame being vital.

Nevertheless, Beale Street still contains some flaws that could have been fixed. There are moments that drag in the film, especially featuring Brian Tyree Henry’s character interacting with Fonny in a flashback scene. Henry’s character details his experience in jail to Fonny and the audience to illuminate the horrors of incarceration. The performances are heightened with the extra time for the actors to perform, but it, unfortunately, took me out of the movie for a moment. Another issue stems from characters popping up but never being seen once again. Fonny’s family appears in one singular scene where Tish announces her pregnancy, to the disappointment of Fonny’s mother, but the plot development extends no further. I never read Baldwin’s novel, and maybe Jenkins tried to make the adaptation faithful; however, it would have been nice for Jenkins to explore the plot threads more and add layers to the film. Notwithstanding its flaws, If Beale Street Could Talk plays like a perfect film to me with its sumptuous score, intimate cinematography, careful directing, and jaw-dropping performances.

If Beale Street Could Talk is currently playing in theaters.

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