Dir: Barry Jenkins
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress (Regina King), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score.
Barry Jenkins delivers his follow up to his much loved 2016 critical hit Moonlight in If Beale Street Could Talk, a lyrical adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. Following the story of Tish and Fonny, a young couple in early 70s Harlem who are torn apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned awaiting trial. Further complicating their lives, the 19 year old Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child (out of wedlock), and the key witness in the trial, Fonny’s accuser, has disappeared back to her native Puerto Rico.
The film is a dazzling collection of intensely warm and beautiful pieces of cinematography, opening with a exquisitely created overhead tracking shot of the two leads dressed in their brightly coloured, strikingly bold, complimentary outfits. A lot of the love story is told in warmly lit flashbacks that interrupt the film throughout it’s running time (and indeed these flashbacks are the core of the film) in order to bask in the purity of Tish and Fonny’s love. These pre-Fonny’s arrest scenes which dominate the film play in sharp contrast to the terrible trauma and strife of the post arrest scenes where family tensions, the cost, complexities and biases of the legal system need to be battled, as well as the strain of numerous scenes (that are largely the motif of the movie) showing young lovers Tish and Fonny staring at each other through the glass wall that separates them during prison visits, like some perverse reworking of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet fish tank scene.
As such, much of the film’s beauty is in the flashback scenes, and as wonderful as they are one can’t shake the feeling that Jenkins lets the positive aspects of the movie become a little too syrupy at times with a few unbearably twee moments, like when Fonny and Tish (with the help of very oddly cast Dave Franco) move invisible, imaginary heavy kitchen appliances into their as yet unfinished loft apartment. One can only assume Jenkins was opting for an impossible dream like quality to emphasise the idea that the ambitions of this young couple are in reality only the stuff of fantasy, in a world that is against them. However sometimes whilst the exceptionally dreamy cinematography of these two distractingly impossibly beautiful young lead actors (who seem to have fallen straight out of a Gap advert) who live in a desperately impoverished 70s Harlem that itself even seems to be overtly beautiful, with mystically joyous pieces of trash placed on the sidewalk, might represent the loved up state of mind of the two young protagonists, sometimes even then it’s a little overcooked. Whilst the beautiful dream like images of a Terrence Malick movie give the impressionist quality of an art installation, on occasion cinematographer James Laxton’s look seems to capture the feeling of a very slick EE mobile phone advert played out in slow motion. The perfect world and use of colour and chocolate box America actually in some ways, rather ironically, call to mind the movie that was initially accidentally called out as best picture winner in the place of Jenkin’s Moonlight a few award seasons back. The look of the film indeed is Moonlight mixed with La La Land and one could be forgiven for thinking the characters might burst into song West Side Story style on a number of occasions.
Sadly Jenkins seems to have gone to some efforts to sanitise Baldwin’s original story, removing certain elements audiences might find troublesome. In adapting it there has also been the creation of some truly woeful artificial dialogue. Thankfully the film makes handsome use of much of Baldwin’s original text in Tish’s voiceover which, although a bit at odds with her less erudite on screen persona, sing beautifully to the ear. Whilst narration is often a sign of lazy writing it’s also obvious why Jenkins couldn’t avoid using this beautiful prose, although as Jenkins himself admits there is a better medium for pure storytelling than film, and that’s books. In this case it’s a reminder that maybe it’s the book one should be reading. But Jenkins knows that cinema can offer a visual poetry a book can only hint at and it’s this element he attempts to add, however it’s somewhat odd that such a brutal story should be so rose tinted. It may be that Jenkins is taking a somewhat Sirkian approach, the colours and themes of a film that is heavily weighed down in its own self importance seem to imply that he could be attempting to wrap the melodramatic up into a facade of appealing commercial photography. Another trick Jenkins employs is to slow the film down to snail’s pace. Initially a bit frustrating, once you submit to the dream-like rhythm of the visuals and beautifully considered score it does give you a woozy sense of love and pain, even if it does occasionally spill into being a bit dull and indeed a bit too grandiose. As I say this grandiose nature infects everything at some point and makes for some truly laughable dialogue that many of the younger actors really struggle with. Again, there is an argument to be made that this artificiality serves some higher purpose although it’s patchy use seems to suggest otherwise, plus when experienced screen veterans like Colman Domingo and especially Regina King get their hands on it they manage to mould it into something much more naturalistic, understated and powerful, King’s performance being worthy of her Best Supporting Actress nod. Generally the material and it’s treatment makes for something of a disconnect between audience and the characters / situations, and again it’s questionable if this is the intent given the warm loving mood portrayed. It just ends up feeling a bit sickly and false. Perhaps some of the foreboding that is injected, especially in the scenes where an old friend visits Fonny, is meant to give an underlying sense of unease through the rosier times, there are specific moments where it does indeed feel very uneasy, but it doesn’t all quite hang together as it should, it’s a bit too open ended in that regard, so much so, the film loses the opportunity to make it’s statement.
Several times throughout the film the story is interrupted by black and white stills of real life racial intolerance and violence that Tish’s voiceover (via Baldwin’s words) allow for historical context and remind us of the brutality that exists beneath the surface of the American system. Sadly when represented within the flow of the film Jenkins completely fluffs it, presenting a cartoonish police officer who is so over the top, and up in Fonny’s face that one is left with the impression that Fonny’s framing for rape is the result of one pissed off cop with a personal grudge against the black man that got away instead of the systemic, far reaching brutal brand of publicly acceptable bias in the police and justice system that is ever present for the black community then as now. It makes it feel as if Fonny was just in the wrong place at wrong time instead of the reality which is, he just has the wrong skin colour. Perhaps if the photo documentary element was little better balanced against the more lyrical, melodramatic movie, the film might pack more of an emotional punch.
There is however no denying the relevance of the tale which illustrates on a small, comparatively subtle level the evils of a system that sees so many young black men incarcerated, one only wishes the movie was less self indulgent, truer to Baldwin’s text and little less like a stage play with advert like images placed between the more dramatic scenes. Undoubtedly it’s a beautiful film with many wonderfully thought out details and a devastating tragedy playing out on screen, occasionally made more effective by virtue of it’s everyday nature being souped up into a grand slow burning opera, but it’s perhaps a little too esoteric in it’s approach and one might be better off going straight to the source and reading the book, or at least viewing the Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro for insight into the issues at hand. Or might I suggest if you want something that really understands how to play this type of story for it’s more lyrical side perhaps view something like Ryan Coogler’s excellent 2013 debut feature Fruitvale Station, which explores the black experience of police racism in the U.S. through a personal, sensual, poetic approach that never shies away from grim reality.
While Baldwin’s work has been seen to be more and more relevant by a growing number of people these days, If Beale Street Could Talk is at odds with the ‘always believe the woman’ mantra that is now widespread in liberal thinking. One wonders how some liberal audiences will reconcile a tale of a black man falsely accused of rape, with a Latino accuser who is so insistent and traumatised that she cannot and will not exonerate the falsely accused Fonny. This perhaps is the most newly relevant part of Baldwin’s tale when presented to modern audiences. In an era when opposing ‘liberal’ values clash constantly, with endless infighting and even nit picking on the left, it seems the same truth is ever present, in the end, only the racist prison system profiteers of the right wing will win, and this warning from history confirms this. Jenkins’s characters do not give up hope entirely by the end, there is still a warmth and courage alive there, but they no longer wear the La La Land, Sirkian yellow of the opening scenes. Hope is alive, but faded. Of it’s 3 nominations the ones for Best Supporting Actress and Original Score are more than warranted. It hasn’t quite reached the heights of a Best Picture nomination, and sadly, that’s a fair judgement.
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