IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

I consider Moonlight to be the best drama of this decade so far, and with how huge of an impact it had on me, it basically gave writer/director Barry Jenkins carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in my mind. However, when a filmmaker makes such a strong debut, it’s logical to be wary of their next project, hoping it wasn’t just all a fluke. Perhaps they only had one good idea in the tank and every all the others weren’t up to snuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you see true talent, you want to see it flourish. 

If Beale Street Could Talk follows Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), two madly in love young adults, living in Harlem in the 1970’s. When Fonny is falsely accused of rape, he finds himself imprisoned, causing Tish and her family to fight to prove his innocence. To make matters worse, Tish becomes pregnant, causing a rift between her and Fonny’s families. As Tish and Fonny deal with her pregnancy and his incarceration, they do everything in their power to make sure their love survives through it all. 

So, was Moonlight a fluke? Absolutely not. Jenkins and his team return to show they’re forces to be reckoned with. While this is a simple love story that consists of many lengthy scenes of people just talking and staring at each other, everything is shot in a such a particular, stylish way. The camera will slowly pan and zoom around the action and character’s faces, perfectly building the tension, and developing the characters. I especially love the way they frame reaction shots, where it’s a tight shot of the actor’s face staring right at the camera. It adds an extra layer of intimacy, like you’re really experiencing the story with these characters. The way it’s all lit is gorgeous, with the colors popping through the all the drab and grey Harlem neighborhoods. Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton are experts at bringing out the beauty from the most seemingly mundane things. 

You also have to credit composer Nicholas Brittell with adding to that beauty and tension. Like Moonlight with its combination of hip hop and classical music, we have a mixture of jazz music and low, droning bass-laden melodies. The jazz perfectly complements the beautiful love scenes, but the more intense scenes, such as one where Fonny first interacts with the cop who will later arrest him where, that constant, low beat gives you a feeling of anxiety. It just has this uncomfortable feeling and with this and Moonlight, Brittell is slowly becoming one of the greatest film composers around. His ability to perfectly amplify the mood of the visuals is impeccable and the vast range of music he uses just makes his work all that more impressive. 

The best part is that Jenkins shies away from showing the negativity and brutality of the real world, and simply focuses on the love between our two characters. The rape allegedly committed by Fonny is never seen. You never see Fonny suffer the things in prison that his friend said he would. You never really see the negative side of things, because that’s not the point. The point is Tish and Fonny’s love. As Fonny spends the runtime behind bars, there are many flashbacks woven throughout showing the romance between him and Tish. Their romance is so incredibly sweet and genuine to the point where they communicate more with their eyes than they do words. There are a lot of scenes where they’re just staring at each other, but they communicate so much. You can really feel the love the two have for each other. 

It just speaks to how well Jenkins can communicate characterization and deep themes with pure visuals and music. However, there were a few times it did feel a little heavy handed, with a lot of expository dialogue coming from Tish’s narration. This is obviously here because it’s an adaptation of a novel, but I felt some things could have better been left unsaid. Also, Jenkins did feel like he was getting into preachy territory at times, which Moonlight avoided with grace. Again, it’s because of the source material, where words from author James Baldwin opening the film talking about how “every black person in America comes from Beale Street, and all their stories come from there.” That explains a lot of the seemingly non-sequitur scenes, such as Fonnie talking to his friend Daniel (played by a scene-stealing Bryan Tyree Henry) about his prison experiences, but I could have done without the actual, real-life photos of the injustice, though. I understood it’s used to show the real horrors that black people went through in America, but I felt the content in the film was strong enough already that it wasn’t necessary. 

While some of those themes were laid on a little too thick for my liking, they perfectly represent the film’s title. If Beale Street Could Talk, then these are the many stories it would tell. It tells stories about hardship and heartbreak, where it feels like the entire world is working against you. However, there are also many stories about happiness and love, and both sides are important to explore. We need to hear the bad things, so we know we have to fix them, but we also need to hear the good things, so our faith in humanity isn’t completely broken and still hold out hope. That’s what Tish and Fonny’s love story is all about, and it’s one that should be able to resonate with just about anybody. 

9/10

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