ANNAPURNA PICTURES

Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Released 8 February

Two years ago, almost to the day, I nearly walked out of the Arts Picturehouse halfway through a film called Moonlight – something I have never done before or since. Tears streaming, my heart palpitating, I could not understand how events so far from my own world were resonating so deep. Little Chiron is forced to define himself, and I realised that this was something we all have to do eventually. The next feature by director Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk, feels like an affirmation of his own identity, as an artist and as a human being.

Moonlight ends with Chiron revisiting his friend Kevin years later, embracing each other as they couldn’t in youth. It is the final stroke of a triptych charting a lifetime, one which leaves much to the imagination between the borders. By contrast, James Baldwin’s novel is to be experienced as a whole, and If Beale Street Could Talk is given to us as a singular, overwhelming canvas. I have never been to Harlem. In fact, I have never been in love. Yet I have been at home, in a community, and I have experienced the sort of personal confusion that leaves one in isolation. Jenkins uses his medium to take us to places we’ve never seen, by tapping into these wells of universal experience.

Here we are guided by the gentle, inviting hand of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), and she never lets go. This time I am wary, questioning whether I want to return to the parts of my psyche that Jenkins strives to penetrate. “You ready for this?” she asks Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), her devoted lover falsely accused of rape, at the start. The answer is uncertain, and within moments my cheeks are soaked. It is a challenge to the actor and director to convince their audience that a couple is in love, to inspire the same ache in us as in them. There is no doubt from the off – cinematographer James Laxton homes in on their faces with extreme intimacy that never feels like intrusion. The constant flipping from viewpoint to viewpoint allows us to experience life from both perspectives, from such joie de vivre to the bloodshot fatigue of fading hope. 

ANNAPURNA PICTURES

As in Moonlight’s delicate scene of sexual awakening, Layne and James play to each other with refreshing honesty. They are touching for the first time, their fingers lingering on the other’s collar bone, tracing each other’s features with uncertain deftness. Lights hit the camera lens with a matted hue, and composer Nicholas Britell’s raw violin strokes spiral around them. Between scenes of Jenkins’s careful adaption of Baldwin’s dialogue come these silent interludes in which the world seems still. I am reminded of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, the repeated love motif here mirroring the use of Yumeji’s theme in those magical slow dances. The pain pervading both films stems from romance observed and felt being denied by fate, and the unsympathetic actions of others.

Jenkins’s social commentary is more harrowing as a result. We see the scars on Fonny’s face, but never the men who put them there. They are not worth the screentime, only brought into the film’s deliberate wider picture by the black-and-white photographs inserted like plates in a history book. Unlike the tacked-on mess of contemporary footage that concludes Spike Lee’s otherwise excellent BlacKkKlansman, they strip down the formalised aesthetics and establish necessary realism. An image of a line of incarcerated black men fades into the prison meeting room, telling us that Tish and Fonny are not alone. It sadly feels that way, the staunch denial of a two shot when they interact through the glass panel leaving us emotionally frustrated.


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Tish does have company to care for her, and while Layne’s performance is an astonishing debut, her supporting family widens the frame to form a richer ensemble piece. As Tish’s child is raised from the waters by her mother, Regina King looks to her daughter with a lifetime of untold stories. A trip she makes to Puerto Rico allows us to spend time in her silent, compelling company which ultimately mystifies her past in contrast to her daughter’s unflinching stream of consciousness. The same can be said of Brian Tyree Henry, whose short scenes intrigue in the unspoken, his healing scars replicated by Fonny’s fresh wounds. It takes Tish’s smile and another beer to break away.

The unknown aspects of the narrative make If Beale Street Could Talk a film one has to work with. Every shot demonstrates the precision and care of a photographer, each portrait unique and exquisite. Fonny is a sculptor (not an artist – he doesn’t like the word), and the first work we see is a carefully finished, smooth piece he gifted to Tish’s mother. Before the close, we waltz around a rough column with nails and splinters jutting out. White cigarette smoke billows from Fonny’s mouth, enshrouding the monument with a blanket that soon starts to dissipate. It is an elegant visual metaphor for a truly beautiful film, leaving us with the mystery of the journey to which Barry Jenkins will entreat us next.

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