In his relatively short career, director Barry Jenkins has already proven himself a master of the artistic craft of filmmaking. Despite the snafu at the Oscars last year, he earned all the accolades for Moonlight, including a well-deserved win for Best Picture (I voted for La La Land, but I was still quite happy with the result). Now he presents his next expressionist foray into the black experience in America with If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from the novel of the same name by James Baldwin. It says a lot that this is the first feature-length fiction adaptation of Baldwin’s work, as his estate has very high standards for what it’ll license, and Jenkins does the author justice beautifully.
Set in 1970s Harlem, the film focuses on a young couple, Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Kiki Layne in her feature debut and Stephan James of Selma and Race, respectively). The pair have been friends since early childhood, and simply evolved their relationship to romance as young adults. Unfortunately, Fonny finds himself imprisoned, accused of rape under more than dubious circumstances, and Tish learns she is pregnant. The film splits time between flashbacks of the couple’s courtship and present-day action trying to prove Fonny’s innocence before he goes to trial, as a rape conviction would likely land him a life sentence.
The movie tells a beautiful love story set against the backdrop of systemic racism, but what makes it truly transcendent is how the focus stays on the couple in all things. Like Beale Street itself, and the jazz influence that Baldwin uses as a metaphor for the black experience, this film is just as much about the notes that aren’t played as it is about those that are. As such, it’s no surprise that this film carries a huge amount of Awards Season buzz, and as I’ve done a few times lately, I’ll break down the likely categories where we might see the film honored come Oscar Night.
Best Supporting Actress – Regina King is the closest thing to a truly scene-stealing influence on the film, playing Tish’s mother Sharon. Part of the reason Tish and Fonny get together is to avoid the respective dramas of their immediate families. Fonny has this worse than Tish, as his mother is super Christian and resentful of Tish as a “son stealer.” But it’s Sharon who ends up providing the most support, including a truly heartbreaking sequence where she raises money to fly to Puerto Rico to confront Fonny’s accuser. It’s a very delicate and devastating scene, as everyone believes the woman was raped, and Sharon sympathizes with just about every aspect of her story, except for the fact that witness testimony makes it impossible for Fonny to be the culprit. It’s a riveting piece of acting to watch Regina King do everything in her power to get her needs across without accusing the woman of lying, because that would doom any hope of her recanting her story. Back in Harlem, she provides unceasing support for Tish, guiding her through the pregnancy and being a continuous source of hope for Fonny’s vindication. She’s the ultimate defender in the story, and King plays it beautifully, which is partly why she’s already earned Supporting Actress nominations for the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards.
Adapted Screenplay – As I said, the main reason this film works as well as it does is because it maintains a slow jazz aesthetic throughout, equating Tish and Fonny’s experience to that of a well-orchestrated piece of music, with movements and interludes all resting on a smooth leitmotif. That comes through in every scene, and again, it’s to the film’s credit that all the ancillary issues of family and race remain in the background to Tish and Fonny’s love story. It is a pure, true romance that cannot be conquered, no matter what threatens to intrude upon it.
All of those issues are present, and they are given proper space when called for, but it’s always in service to the main romance. Ed Skrein plays a racist cop who wants to arrest Fonny for basically being an uppity black man, and a woman’s rape gives him the perfect opportunity. But it isn’t about whitey holding the black man down. It’s about a father-to-be protecting his fiancée, consequences be damned. Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) play up the stereotypical low class father figure who would rather be drinking than handling domestic affairs, but they use that time at the bar to formulate plans to get Fonny out of prison, even if it means dealing with some hustlers and engaging in shady dealings in the short term. Even minor characters like Levy (Dave Franco), who wants to rent a renovated loft space to the couple, is much more engaged because it gives a growing family and a starving artist (Fonny is a sculptor) a chance at a better life, because as a Jew, he’s faced his own discrimination, but he has the money and means to make just a small difference.
And then of course, there’s the dialogue. James Baldwin was an amazing speaker during his life, and his gift with prose was beyond impressive. If you watch his public appearances, or even the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro (also Oscar-nominated), you see a man who seeks to defy the stereotypes of so-called “black speech,” but also means to dispel the reductive “well-spoken, articulate black man” label that was applied to educated minorities of the early-to-mid 20th century – sadly a microaggression that still exists today. That carries through to the film, as every character is sharp-tongued, with a decent vocabulary and sense of wit, but without betraying their roots or falling into a pigeon hole. It’s a very fine line to walk, and Jenkins executes it nearly perfectly.
Original Score – The orchestral score by Nicholas Britell is shortlisted for the Oscar already, and I got the chance to hear some of his process when I saw the film. The Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles holds Q&A sessions with people involved with several of the films they show, and my girlfriend and I got to attend one such screening and session, this time featuring Producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Composer Britell, and the stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James.
The way Britell described the scoring process was fascinating. He told of deeply collaborative sessions with Barry Jenkins, adjusting the mix on the fly, adding strings or horns depending on the cue, and melding the score into the jazz standards that were already playing in the scene. To hear it, it’s almost as if Jenkins himself were conducting an orchestra inside Britell’s mind that he then translated to the actual musicians, while still adding his own signature touch to the proceedings.
Best Director – Given the incredible quality of this film, less than two years after winning top honors, one has to think that Jenkins will be in the conversation for Best Director when it’s all said and done. He could also be relegated to just the Screenplay category, which has earned nominations at several early minor shows and festivals. But I think to do so would be a disservice, because his cinematic eye is still growing and still amazing. The intimate portraits he weaves with his two leads is incredible, the supporting cast does wonders, and the scenery turns Harlem into a painting come to life. A lot of that is down to the cinematography and production design, as well as the quality of the actors themselves, but it’s the director who brings that all together and executes the artistic vision, and Jenkins has once again acquitted himself terrifically.
Best Picture – There was really only one thing I didn’t like about the film, and that was Kiki Layne’s narration. I’m not really a fan of narration in general, as it can sometimes be a cheap way to dump exposition, and sometimes it can just intrude on the proceedings. I think that was the case this time. The drama on screen is so lovely and compelling that I think the narration was just overkill. There’s nothing wrong with Layne’s delivery, I just don’t think it was needed.
As such, this film wouldn’t necessarily get my vote if I had one, but depending on the field it goes against, I could certainly be convinced. It’s not a perfect movie, but I would certainly vote for it against the likes of A Star is Born or Mary Poppins Returns. So we’ll see. It’s a lovely movie, but just shy of the 2018 pantheon for me. Still, I wouldn’t be offended if Barry Jenkins took top honors once again.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the best romance you’ve seen on film this year? Would your sister call your mother-in-law a cunt? Let me know!