REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

February 8, 2019

Director: Barry Jenkins

Screenplay: Barry Jenkins

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein

Runtime: 117 Minutes




Alongside the resurgence of popularity in the writings of American novelist, playwright and activist James Baldwin with documentary I Am Not Your Negro, it’s fitting that the adaptation of his 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk is the next film of one of Americas leading black contemporary filmmakers; Barry Jenkins.


The story concerns young African-American woman Clementine "Tish" Rivers (KiKi Layne) who, with her family's support, seeks to clear the name of her wrongly charged lover Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James) and prove his innocence before the birth of their child.


The film is adorned with love. Jenkins’ attention to detail regarding the period and location setting is impeccable, right down to the music cues and warmth dyed into a lived-in aesthetic that evokes the dreamy memory fishing of Baldwin’s prose.


He’s also one of the best in the industry at providing intensive close-ups of human faces, staring into the soul’s characters of colour who some (white) audiences may have never seen up so close and in such adoring detail. Beautifully captured in celluloid, the hair and makeup work is astonishing, and contributes heavily to one of the film’s best scenes the slow removal of a wig


But it wouldn’t work half as well if he and cinematographer James Laxton weren’t photographing such beautiful faces, and he’s found a pair of strong leads to carry it. Newcomer KiKi Layne is asked of the most in the most difficult role, channelling the duality of her characters’ persona through her actions and her more confident and worldly inner monologues. While James is every bit the man of her dreams and love of her life in a poignantly played and mostly subdued role


Then there’s the supporting cast of satellite actors giving scene-stealing performances. Michael Beach and Colman Domingo as fathers to Tish and Fonny, the terrific Regina King as Tish’s mother, Sharon, and a quietly brilliant role for Brian Tyree Henry who lays bare the terrors of the period prison system and racial abuse in a lengthy conversation. Where the horror is conveyed through a balanced blend of chilling ambient mood and performance, and what is not said leaves the most impact


It’s a film that’s confidently about race relations and the downtrodden nature of black lives in Harlem, a neighbourhood being slowly choked by the society around it and its people lost in the hum of its decaying buildings and social structure But it’s also about how love is at the forefront centre of all conflict, and the overwhelming metaphysical bond between the two is what transcends the distance that they are held at from each other, even between something as thin and transparent as a pane of glass, and the two leads entirely sell it


This also feels like something the film will succumb too in a less than forgiving sense for some audiences. It’s very apparent that Jenkins has made a film that is so in love with the text as a thoroughly faithful translation that he kind of loses track of the central story, or rather it's component elements in the journey. Translating the novel to screen is a challenge as an unconventionally structured POV narrative, but as a film, it leaves characters introduced only to never be seen again, or ongoing threads concerning other family members fading out completely without resolve


Jenkins also allows the film, with editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, to move at its own leisurely and assured pace to let it all soak in as a mood piece But occasionally it takes a little too much time to dwell on smaller moments and close-ups in spite of that, leaving large stretches later on an open void where the films own self-importance as an adaptation of a heavily revered piece of writing feels overbearingly ponderous and ostentatious


Having said that, the makers clearly having enough confidence in their own abilities and the source material to take as much time as they need right off the back of the acclaim, they received for Moonlight is something to admire.


If Beale Street Could Talk was always going to be an interesting follow-up for Jenkins and co., and if not quite as strong or vitally stimulating as their accomplished predecessor, it still manages to make it feel fresh and alive with passion and splendour, with a plethora of great performances and swallowed by an all-encompassing atmosphere.



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