If Beale Street Could Talk

Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Directed by Barry Jenkins

Dec 12, 2018 Web Exclusive
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It should come as no surprise that If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to 2016’s spectacular Moonlight, is a visually arresting film, especially with cinematographer James Laxton back behind the camera. Even before character or story, it’s just how every shot is composed that leaves a lasting impression.

Most memorable is the repeated use of close-ups of faces looking directly into the camera. While this was certainly on display in Moonlight, it’s even more prevalent here. This isn’t just a superfluous stylistic touch, but an essential piece of flair that bores deep into the souls of the characters inhabiting the central tale of a young African-American couple on the verge of having a child and the pitfalls directly connected to that and how personal – and societal – obstacles get in the way.

Tish (newcomer Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) are childhood friends who fall in love. He’s an artisan who works primarily with wood, and she’s still trying to figure out her place in the world. Tish gets pregnant and Fonny gets arrested for a crime he didn’t commit thanks to a vindictive, racist white cop who tried to exert his authority over Fonny one night, only to fail.

It’s not quite so easy, though. Fonny was accused of sexual assault. The woman identified him even though, according to him and Tish, he could not have physically been there at the time. Compounding the problem, the victim leaves the country and cannot be reached.

Fonny’s sent to jail, and it’s increasingly apparent that he’s not going to be set free. Every visitation between the two – looking through glass and talking on a phone – shows him to be slightly more haggard due to the implied abuse suffered at the hands of his fellow inmates and prison guards.

He is depicted as innocent, and both his and Tish’s families believe wholeheartedly that he is. And, the story suggests that he probably is taking the stance that he’s a fallen prey to a cop using a horrendous crime to pay back a pride-based vendetta for a time when Fonny stood up to him for abusing his power and uniform. But, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), the victim of the rape, isn’t just cast aside or made to feel like she lacks credibility. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) travels to Puerto Rico in hopes of finding Victoria to plead Fonny’s case and get her to recant her story. It becomes apparent that Victoria and Fonny are both victims to the same system that has been built against them, and Victoria’s victimization has been weaponized not by Victoria, but by a system that holds a grudge against Fonny for not staying in his lane.

While Victoria is not an afterthought in the story, and she is given a chance to be more than just a plot device, it’s still the story of Fonny and Tish and what it means to be Black in America in 1970s Harlem (though, like any good period piece of this ilk, it is also painfully resonant in relation to present day social issues). This is exemplified most by what is maybe the most powerful sequence of the entire runtime when it flashes back to Fonny running into his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). They grab some beer and some smokes, and head back to Fonny and Tish’s humble apartment. Before dinner, Daniel tells Fonny about his arrest for something he didn’t do, subsequent jail time, and the horrors associated with that. Again, the camera focuses tight on Daniel’s face and reveals just how deep the hurt is, while also providing a glimpse into how Fonny will be haunted about his own false imprisonment. Daniel can never escape that sense of dread and fear, and Fonny won’t be able to either.

Director Jenkins taps into something special with Baldwin’s material here, and creates image after image reflecting the entire human experience of joy, anger, pain, sadness, curiosity, love, excitement, and more. It’s the perfect combination of style (those moments of characters staring into the camera, and directly into the viewer’s eyes) and narrative that both play into Jenkins’ sensibilities very well, like he was made to make this movie. It isn’t as big in its movements as some other high profile films generating awards buzz this autumn, but it deserves to be seen for what it is: one of the most human and wonderful movies of 2018.

Author rating: 9/10

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