“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Directed by Barry Jenkins
From the opening seconds of Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk”, you know you’re in for something special. The look, the colors, the close-ups, the music(!), and the adoration in our lover’s eyes…it’s immediately arresting. And terrifying. Terrifying because, you quickly and desperately want to believe this is a story about happiness, and the joys of love. But, as it’s based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, you know there is absolutely no chance of that. Thus, in those opening moments, in addition to being in love with them, you feel the dread of the looming storm clouds…clouds which portend the brutal racial injustices that have not stopped (and will seemingly never stop) in America.
And then the film goes deeper…and gets better. And better. And better. As each piece of the story’s puzzle becomes known, your investment multiplies. Thanks to Jenkins’ liberal use of the aforementioned close-ups that are becoming a signature element of his films, a narration that actually works, the introduction of influential, three-dimensional yet never plot-exclusive supporting characters, and a New York City that feels so of its time, the film takes you to a real space within a relationship that hasn’t been seen since…well…”Moonlight”. And, as in “Moonlight”, Jenkins wisely eschews plot as film’s main driver. Instead, the plot is only seen through the eyes and voice of our lovers. In this manner, we are never burdened with cliché. Yes, there are a couple characters that may, at first glance, seem a little too close to caricature, but that is only because of how Tish experiences them. And, lest we forget, right smack-dab in the heart of the film, Baldwin’s social commentary strikes us in the most subtle manner…just as Baldwin often did. In short, the sum of the parts equals a film that squarely belongs in everyone’s Top Five.
The craft of the film is remarkable, starting with James Laxton’s photography. He is asked by Jenkins to accomplish two completely different tasks; 1) utilize light to make a color palette that places you at once in the memories of seventies-era New York City you never even had, and 2) utilize extreme, in-your-face close-ups for a third of the film without alienating the audience. Both are performed so well that you can’t believe how evocative number one actually is, and how little you even notice number two. Credit must also go to production designer, Mark Friedberg, for his use of NYC, and the creation of the film’s interior.
But, let’s face it. If we’re going to stare in to the eyes of two or three characters for as long as we do in this film, the actors playing them had better be exceptional. And they are. Full disclosure…I consider myself somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend to KiKi Layne, so my gushing may seem like overselling, except it ain’t. It is her character’s story, and she controls the film with a reservoir of emotion teeming just under the surface – as if she’s holding her breath throughout. And you hang on Tish’s every word…literally, leaning forward…hoping she will exhale just so you can say you were there when it happened. It’s a shockingly brilliant balancing act…and then, when you realize it’s her first film performance, you can’t quite imagine you’ve seen what you’ve seen. Of course, it helps to be constantly staring in to the eyes of Stephan James. Through Tish’s eyes, James comes across as almost too perfect (interestingly, I felt the same way about his performance in “Homecoming” – maybe he’s just perfect). But the love in his eyes is always real, and the frustration of his situation, while ever-so-slightly pushed at times, is very much in keeping with how Tish would tell the story.
And then there’s the supporting cast, which starts with your 2019 Oscar winner, Regina King. Not sure if there is anyone out there right now that is as comfortable inhabiting a character than her. It’s just so damned natural, and she grounds the opening scenes of the film with power and grace. Brian Tyree Henry, whose job in the film is almost strictly contextual, still manages, in his one scene, to give you all the pain and empathy James Baldwin has for his race. It’s a gorgeous and unforgettable scene. And special mention to Emily Rios, who quite possibly has the most difficult three minutes of screen time this year. Heart-breaking, brilliant and brutal to witness.
Finally, it’s time to acknowledge Nicholas Britell as one of the finest film composers out there today. This music (and his brilliant score for “Vice”) grabs you by the throat from its opening bars. More so than any film this year, this score will attach you permanently to the emotions you feel in this film. There may be better film music this year in terms of composition or listen-ability, but there is not one score that will connect me to a film more than this work.
So, for the life of me, I cannot understand how the Academy missed recognizing “Beale Street” as one of the year’s very best films and directorial efforts. I would even add KiKi Layne, Stephan James, David Tyree Henry or the GREAT Colman Domingo for acting noms. This film, in my eyes, is simply too good for it to be ignored. Like Baldwin himself, it demands attention, accolades and audience. It soars in to my Top Five, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
(…as an aside, after you see “Beale Street,” do yourself a favor and watch the incredible Oscar-nommed doc on James Baldwin’s life, 2016’s “I Am Not Your Negro” currently streaming on Amazon Prime and reviewed by me here…)
(this trailer has no dialogue and I highly suggest it be the only trailer you watch)
Written on 2/11/2019