Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018)

Notable Festivals: Toronto, New York

The mid-budget adult drama is all but extinct in contemporary Hollywood, relegated to the realm of streaming platforms after having been squeezed out of theaters by bloated franchise spectacles. In the vanishingly rare instance that such a film does make it to cinema screens, there’s usually an angle, and oftentimes, a cynical one— a naked bid for awards prestige, for instance, or a celebrity’s self-aggrandizing passion project… or both. The existence of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK — a thoughtful, earnest period romance colored by a sociopolitical urgency — is nothing if not a miracle. Directed by Barry Jenkins from a screenplay he began writing as far back as 2013, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is lavishly mounted on a scale rarely accorded to other films of its type. The additional resources empower a filmmaker who continues to blossom into one of the most important artists of his generation, uniquely-positioned to counter the creeping cynicism of our age with a boundless compassion.

Adapted from acclaimed author James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK treads familiar dramatic territory with fresh kicks; that is to say, that Jenkins’ singularly compassionate and curious worldview serves to invigorate a well-worn narrative archetype— the social-issues melodrama. Under Jenkins’ steady hand, Baldwin’s literary exploration of a young expecting couple separated by the glass plate of a prison’s visiting room is given a higher calling than the cynical pursuits of award season. Set against the evocative backdrop of Harlem in the 1970’s, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK tells the story of Tish Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, a young black couple who don’t so much fall in love as they plunge into it, quickly conceiving a child as they begin to forge a future for themselves. Said future is complicated by the squabbling between members of their respective families as well as Fonny’s incarceration following an accusation of rape from a woman that lives across town. A title card at the film’s opening explains Baldwin’s decision to name his Harlem story after a prominent Black neighborhood in New Orleans— one he describes as loud, busy, and stuffed to the brim with the type of intimate dramas seen here, effectively stitching Tish and Fonny’s trial of love into the greater fabric of our shared human experience. 

Jenkins’ newfound prestige empowers him to assemble a compelling cast of black performers that give resonant breath to Baldwin’s words. KiKi Layne and Stephan James headline the film as our aforementioned couple, delivering a pair of nuanced and effective performances that quickly draw us to their side. Their youth, beauty, and tactile chemistry work together to effortlessly evoke the intoxicating sensation of falling in love, while the hardened performances delivered by their supporting cast members reflect the sociopolitical headwinds continually battering against them. Of these, Jenkins lavishes the most attention on Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother, Sharon. At turns both warm and resolute, Sharon is a fiercely protective matriarch who will go to any lengths for her family— even as far as Puerto Rico, in a bid to track down Fonny’s accuser in hiding and convince her to retract her claims. Colman Domingo delivers a memorable performance as Sharon’s husband, Joseph— an easygoing, amenable man who works overtime to smooth over the inter-family conflicts between the Rivers and the Hunts by partnering with Fonny’s father to steal clothes and sell them so as to help provide for their gestating grandson. Their particular arc serves to reinforce how, in a marginalized community where the system only works to keep its members down, sometimes the system must be subverted entirely if progress is to be achieved.

Jenkins employs an interesting tactic in filling out IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’s minor roles, casting highly recognizable faces whose screen times stand in direct inverse proportion to their industry profile. Finn Wittrock, perhaps most distinguished by his performance in Adam McKay’s THE BIG SHORT, plays Hayward, the Rivers’ lawyer and an ally who exhibits genuine concern over their wellbeing. Dave Franco and Diego Luna also display a large degree of empathy towards the central couple, Franco being an open-minded and sensitive Jewish landlord who leases them raw warehouse space for them to build their home within, and Luna being a cheerful and generous waiter at their local Mexican restaurant. Pedro Pascal, well-known for his turns on television shows like THE MANDALORIAN and GAME OF THRONES, appears briefly in King’s Puerto Rico sequence as a protective and enigmatic family member of Fonny’s accuser. 

Produced on a budget of $12 million, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK finds Jenkins working at his largest scale yet, imbued with a wealth of resources that enable him to realize his sumptuous vision with little compromise. Rather than use said resources to pursue collaborators of a more “prestigious” pedigree, Jenkins elevates his own stable of trusted creative partners. Working once more with producers Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, and Plan B’s Dede Gardner & Jeremy Kleiner, Jenkins also re-enlists cinematographer James Laxton, editors Joi McMillon & Nat Sanders, and composer Nicholas Britell. Though it, technically, is a small picture by Hollywood standards, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK nonetheless feels “large”; this is on account of Jenkins’ and Laxton’s embrace of large format cinematography— the digital equivalent of 65mm celluloid film or even IMAX. The film was shot on the Arri Alexa 65, a large format camera with a 6.5k sensor whose pristine lines are softened here by the timeless elegance of Arri Prime DNA and Hawk prime lenses. With its increased clarity and shallower depth of field, the format offers a higher degree of immersiveness than its conventional cousins, and allows Jenkins to create a swooning, inward-looking atmosphere that recalls fundamental inspirations like Wong Kar Wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. The choice of aspect ratio also reinforces this approach— splitting the difference between the “cinematic” compositional conceits of 2.35:1 and the taller affectations of IMAX, Jenkins and Laxton adopt a 2:1 frame. First proposed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to better compensate for the emerging technology of widescreen televisions, the 2:1 aspect ratio has seen a rise in popularity in recent years as IMAX and other large formats have been adopted into narrative productions. Finding further adoption by Netflix and other players in the digital streaming space, the 2:1 aspect ratio suggests itself as an ideal blend of scale and performer physicality— an ideal compromise for our contemporary environment of multiple screens with little particular consistency between their rectangular dimensions.

Whereas MOONLIGHT embraced the lush greens and aquatic blues of it is sun soaked Miami backdrop, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK adopts a handsome, autumnal aesthetic; swaths of rich reds, oranges, yellows, and browns add an earthy dimension to high-contrast lighting setups reportedly inspired by the sumptuous black and white photography of Roy DeCarava (1). Elegant dolly movements give the picture a classical feel, helping to realize Jenkins’ and Laxton’s intent to translate “Baldwin’s language and clean energy into visual writing” (1). Editors McMillon and Sanders expand on the lyrical storytelling style they developed with Jenkins on MOONLIGHT, stringing together a nonlinear sequencing of the narrative’s events with an introspective, allusive voiceover. This creates the editorial equivalent of the “chopped & screwed” approach undertaken by Jenkins and returning composer Nicholas Britell— a conceit that effectively rearranges a given piece of music’s instrumentation and structure, deconstructing it for narrative purposes. This gives the film’s score — at turns both romantic and elegiac — an eclectic sound, punctuated by a jazzy horn section that, in some passages, calls to mind the work of Bernard Herrmann (specifically TAXI DRIVER, oddly enough). The clearest example of this technique within the film lies not in Britell’s score, however; it’s arguably used the most effectively in a piece pulled from the collection of vintage jazz and R&B tracks sourced to evoke the 70’s Harlem setting, laid underneath a ruminative sequence in which Fonny listens to an old friend expound upon the damage that his recent stint in prison has wrought on his psyche. The characters are in a relaxed setting (Fonny’s kitchen table), sharing a drink while the aforementioned music track plays diegetically in the background. The deeper Fonny’s friend goes into his experiences, however, the deeper Jenkins pulls us into his inner state; he manipulates the acoustics of the diegetic track to sound like a distant rumble echoing through a long, dark tunnel, as if to evoke the utter hollowness that now defines this man’s emotional state. All told, the cinematography, the editing, and the music work in beautiful harmony to impress Jenkins’ internal storytelling style upon the audience, affording deeper and more direct access to the characters’ distinct perspectives.

This extremely subjective approach breeds a natural empathy— easily the most defining trait of Jenkins’ artistry. Though each of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’s characters possess profound flaws, Jenkins’ lens nonetheless smiles on them with compassion; the simple act of capturing their likeness onto a sensor becomes a kind of grace. Jenkins’ refusal to pass judgment is embodied in a distinct shot that recurs throughout his filmography, wherein his characters gaze directly into the camera, their surroundings falling off into dreamy bokeh. This breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the context of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, effectively forces the audience to consider the characters’ humanity; no longer passive observers of simulated emotions, this technique makes them complicit in the machinations of the plot. It’s an effective approach in Jenkins’ bid to parlay matters of Black identity into broader audience appreciation. More so than his previous features, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK finds Jenkins tackling the the most prominent trappings of this particular theme: incarceration, impoverished communities, and institutionalized racism, among others. His recreation of 70’s Harlem is all encompassing — one gets a vivid sense of a specific place and time that’s tactile and immediate. Mark Friedberg’s production design bolsters Jenkins’ artistic embrace of regionalism, brought out by authentic locations and the narrative drama wrought by the particular conditions of the characters’ climate. The prospect of having a baby out of wedlock is challenging enough, but Fonny and Tish encounter additional resistance in the acute socioeconomics of their neighborhood, where a higher concentration of religious folks predisposed against the “scandal” of extramarital conception jams up against the bureaucracy’s debilitating lack of educational investment and resources in their community. The 70’s setting serves to further inflame this conflict, detailing an era where conceiving outside of wedlock was far less accepted by society at large than it is today. People are going to fall in love, and they’ll naturally want to express it, so to deny entire communities the information they need to grow their families on their own terms is nothing less than an institutional endorsement of economic imbalance that preserves existing power structures.

Timed to release as a major awards contender — an obvious strategy given the staggering awards success of Jenkins’ previous feature — IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK launched its prestige campaign by premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. Subsequent screenings at other prominent festivals like New York bolstered its profile, ultimately earning a worldwide total of $20 million in box office receipts and near universal praise from critics (many of whom singled out King’s fierce performance in particular). The response from the Academy, however, was oddly muted— come Oscar time, only King’s performance, Britell’s score, and Jenkins’ screenplay were recognized with nominations. Despite possessing a level of technical sophistication and emotional power on par with MOONLIGHT, there seemed to be some reluctance on the part of the Academy to fully embrace IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. One could posit the theory that they wished to avoid a repeat of the infamous debacle that marked the end of the 2017 Oscars, whereby Damien Chazelle’s LA LA LAND (2016) was initially announced as the winner for Best Picture before MOONLIGHT’S actual win was hastily announced. That Chazelle was also returning to the awards circuit that year with FIRST MAN makes it easy to imagine that Academy voters preferred to overlook the two men’s latest efforts so as to keep any reminder about 2017 to a minimum.

As it stands, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK marks a natural progression in Jenkins’ artistic trajectory. Its generous budget affords him his largest canvas yet, reinforcing his strengths as a gifted and supernaturally empathetic storyteller while showcasing his growing technical dexterity. Though the awards circuit ambitions harbored by its producers may have come up short, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK seems poised to settle into a sublime aftermarket life, with Jenkins’ resonant and gorgeous vision aging like a fine wine. Among its myriad virtues — visual elegance, emotional profundity, an inherent timeless essence — one quality in particular lingers in the mind: promise. That a filmmaker so relatively young, especially one that doesn’t come from the kind of privileged background that shapes other successful directors his age, can deliver an affecting work without compromise at a scale that frequently demands some degree of such, speaks to the promise of the films yet to come. Jenkins is here to stay, and we as an audience are all the better off for it.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 

Credits:

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Produced by: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, Barry Jenkins

Director of Photography: James Laxton

Production Designer: Mark Friedberg

Edited by: Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders

Music by: Nicholas Britell

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page

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