LFF review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is the perfect story for Barry Jenkins
19 October 2018 14:03
When I saw Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning Moonlight (2016) at the London Film Festival two years ago, I remember the very first comment in the Q&A after the public screening. ‘Thank you for making us look so beautiful,’ said a black man in the audience, his voice full of emotion. One of the wonders of Moonlight was that Jenkins saw beauty where many of us might only have perceived pain and trauma. His characters are fully realised human beings, not simply victims of their circumstances. This is absolutely central to his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, which tells the story of a young couple in 1970s New York – nineteen-year-old Tish (a radiant Kiki Layne) and twenty-two-year-old Fonny (Stephan James). Childhood friends-turned-lovers, expecting their first baby together, their world is turned upside down when Fonny is falsely accused of rape. In the opening scene of the film, the couple walk hand-in-hand along a footpath, a lustrous vision of happiness clad in bright blues and yellows, the latter reflected in the colour of the canopy of autumn leaves in the trees above them. Here, if only for a brief minute or two, we see them alone in the world they’ve created for themselves. Jenkins gives us Fonny and Tish in love before he gives us Fonny and Tish as tragic victims of America’s unjust legal system. As she scene changes, Tish is heard in voiceover: ‘I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.’ Immediately Jenkins cuts to a prison interior, the couple cruelly separated, sitting on either side of a glass partition.
As is the case with the original novel, Jenkins’ film is both a love story and a protest narrative. When it comes to the former, he evokes the grand Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk. The russet and golden autumnal tones of that opening scene echoing the first shots of All That Heaven Allows, Sirk’s 1955 film about an unconventional, socially frowned upon love affair between a middle-class widow and her younger gardener. There’s a similar richness to the visual imagery of Jenkins’ film, James Laxton’s expert cinematography capturing the soft glow that exudes from the on-screen lovers.
Scenes from their past – the all too brief time they had together – are interleaved with the action that unfolds in the present, as Tish and her family do everything within their power – what little they have – to exonerate Fonny. These vignette-like episodes are a beautiful depiction of a blossoming romance, two people unfurling within the arms of each other. A profusion of lingering head shots, the characters looking directly into the camera, creates a keen sense of intimacy, both that between the lovers as Jenkins switches between the gaze of each as they lock eyes, but also that between the characters and the audience. Baldwin’s novel is one in which interiority plays a key role, and Jenkins has clearly considered how to render this visually on the screen.
The story is held together by a collection of magnificent performances. James never overplays Fonny’s desperation and despondency, and Regina King and Colman Domingo stand out from the supporting cast as Tish’s mother and father, helping their child as best they can. But it’s Layne who steals every scene she’s in, her eyes great wells of love and pain. She manages to capture the rawness of Tish’s coming-of-age, the loneliness of the journeys to maturity and maternity that she’s forced to undertake without Fonny by her side. Hers is both the book and the film’s central consciousness – her voiceover is lifted directly from the novel, and Jenkins uses it sparingly, only when necessary. These moments – along with some expertly placed black and white photographic stills – remind us that what we’re watching is more than simply a haunting love story that tugs at our hearts strings, it’s a portrait of the unjust reality of modern America: ‘the death that awaited the children of our age,’ as Tish heartbreakingly describes it.
This must have been a daunting project for Jenkins. Not only did he have to live up to the incredible success of Moonlight, but he also had to do justice to Baldwin’s legacy, not just that of this novel but also – given this is the very first adaptation of any of the writer’s fiction – more broadly. It’s the perfect match though. If Beale Street Could Talk is a timeless and timely narrative brought to life by a director who makes his films from a place of love; love for his characters, and love for their stories, and this shines on the screen.