If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful heartache
Moonlight director delivers next masterpiece
Based on the novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of two young lovers in 1970s Harlem, where Fonny (Stephen James) has been sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit and Tish (Kiki Layne) must try to conduct her life as normal while facing an unplanned pregnancy.
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins adapts Baldwin’s novel in a non-linear fashion, even spending a fifth of the film cross cutting between a mere few hours of a single night and flashbacks to Tish and Fonny’s life together before the crime. Though occasionally off-putting from feeling ingenuine, Tish’s soft yet emotionless narration atop real-life period photos of the black American experience in the 70s guides the viewer through dense subject matter.
Beale Street is complicated in its many themes about familial bonds, systematic racism, young love, black love, poverty, and sinfulness. But by no means does Beale Street preach to the choir, nor does it try to act like anything it depicts are issues of the past. The film knows its relevance to today, but chooses to focus on its singular story, making itself more effective as both a conversation starter and a narrative.
The twists and turns of the court room drama plot help branch the film out to comment on not just judicial prejudice against African Americans, but minorities as a whole. Beale Street doesn’t shy away from the bleakness of its situation but rather embraces its characters’ helplessness in a society set against them.
Still, for all of its deliberate slow-burn pacing and scene after scene of people sitting in rooms and talking, Beale Street is never boring.
Regina King has rightfully earned herself an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Sharon, the matriarch of Tish’s household. King commands attention through her piercing gaze and the gentle yet authoritarian way she interacts with her castmates. One moment King is nurturing her expectant daughter, the next she’s taming Fonny’s holier-than-thou mother, played by Aunjanue Ellis, all without losing an ounce of believability or utilizing scene changes.
As impressive as every performance Jenkins’ cast delivers is, the film features even more standout cinematography. James Laxton, who received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Moonlight, steps behind the camera again. Here he brings his absolute A-game, opening the film with a bird’s-eye view that spirals above the lovers before twirling down to level itself out at shoulder level.
Street life and the lovers’ presence there is shot in hand-held, near-documentary style that’s still romanticized and glossy enough to draw beauty from the dirty, urban setting. Laxton’s work is a masterclass in lighting, framing, and camera operation that was somehow still overlooked this awards season.
As far as Oscars go, and their relevance to today’s cinema culture, a single viewing is all it takes to understand the massive snub that it is to leave such a fantastic film out of the Best Picture race. Jenkins’ junior directorial effort is by far one of the best films of 2018 and asks to be re-watched and pondered time and time again. Perhaps calling any movie a “cinematic experience” is a thing of the past, but If Beale Street Could Talk is just that: a film that achieves its lofty ambitions of commentary on the human condition with such precision that it must be seen to be believed.