Following the great success of Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight is no easy feat. The movie was exquisite: every shot added meaning, the heartbreak was visceral and Nicholas Britell’s score was divine. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney).
Thankfully, If Beale St Could Talk is a wonderful accompaniment to Jenkins’ Moonlight. The film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 was met with critical acclaim, and it has earned nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Music Score, and Best Supporting Actress (Regina King) in this year’s Academy Awards.
Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, the title is a nod to a 1917 W. C. Handy blues song Beale Street Blues, which refers to the epicentre of African American music in Memphis, Tennessee.
The film opens with a quote from Baldwin’s text:
Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.
Many African American cultural critics have since written about how Baldwin’s writings on racism and injustice reverberate throughout all of American society .
Jenkins’ film sees a young woman, Tish (Kiki Layne in a breakthrough performance) go through pregnancy as her fiancé, Fonny (Stephan James), is convicted of rape and sent to prison; a crime he did not commit.
Tish and her family, her parents Sharon and Joseph Rivers (Regina King and Colman Domingo) and quick-fired sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), fight to prove Fonny’s innocence and secure his release. Importantly, Fonny’s accuser, a Puerto Rican woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) is never portrayed as an antagonist, but as another victim of circumstance. The other women in the film never question whether or not she was raped. Her pain in the film is acknowledged.
Performances are consistently strong in this ensemble. Regina King, who is fantastic in Southland, The Leftovers and American Crime, has received a noteworthy amount of critical acclaim for her performance and is favourite to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
One standout scene sees Sharon preparing to meet Fonny’s accuser, Victoria Rogers, and contemplating how to present herself. Does she wear a wig or her natural hair? Without any dialogue, King’s performance is a proud affirmation of blackness.
The film’s plot is non-linear as it cuts between Fonny’s incarceration and earlier moments depicting the blossoming of Tish and Fonny’s deep love for each other. The narrative uses ellipses to create a series of moments in their relationship that bounce from sorrow to hope.
Tish’s voiceover is melancholic in some parts – “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass” – and angry in others, as the film breaks into a documentary-style detailing of systematic racism of America.
These documentary-like moments are directly inspired by Balwdin’s rhetoric, which evokes recent documentary based on his work I Am Not Your Negro. In fact, every scene in the book was apparently filmed, but not all made the film’s final cut. Most notably, there are omissions from the film’s ending, which creates a focus solely on Tish and Fonny.
As with Moonlight, Jenkins’ aesthetic continues to be lush. He is fond of shooting his actors front on, which was an aspect of Moonlight that I loved. This engagement with character is something he spoke of at length in an interview with The Atlantic’s David Sims:
If I can feel that the actor’s in a place where the thinking has receded and they’re in a meditative state, then we pull that shot out. It’s important for the audience to have a direct connection to the character, and when an actor’s performing, there’s always some degree of distance. If the performance goes away, and there’s this perfect fusion between actor and character, then I want the audience to look right into that person’s eyes.
In this film, these moments predominantly feature Tish and Fonny as they lovingly look into each other’s eyes. In turn, however, they look directly at us demanding validation. I found a similar motif used in Sebastián Lelio’s recent films A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience. There is one scene in A Fantastic Woman in particular, where Daniela Vega’s character literally grabs the camera and forces us to look at her. In Beale Street, though, I did find that these moments became repetitive, which diminished their impact.
Barry Jenkins’ visual style has been influenced by several directors, most notably Spike Lee and Wong Kar-wai. In particular, Beale Street is most reminiscent of the vibrant colours and minimal dialogue of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.
Finally, Nicholas Brittel’s score is an important component of the film’s beauty. His work with Jenkins on both Beale Street and Moonlight is where he demonstrates his strength as a composer. The score is also punctuated with jazz greats, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Nina Simone. The music evokes heartbreak, falling in love and trepidation for what the future could hold.
Interestingly, Brittel says that emotions are his first inspiration for his scores, before seeing any footage.
Brittel’s score swells during iconic shots of the actors looking directly into the camera. Flurries of brass and horns – trumpets, flügelhorns, cornets and French horns – emphasise the excitement of Tish and Fonny’s world.
The strings symbolise the various forms of love the characters have for each other, but this pleasant soundscape is broken when Fonny’s friend Daniel shares his experience in prison. The dominant score makes way for a sinister, uneasy sound, which Brittel describes as “a horrific doppelgänger of the music of love”.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a sumptuous film that explores the emotions of joy, fear, anger and, above all, love. Jenkins’ sights and sounds are a wonderful follow up to his brilliant Moonlight.