Despite the on-stage debacle that threatened to overshadow the award itself, Barry Jenkins’ debut feature Moonlight took home the biggest prize at last year’s Oscars, beating the favourite La La Land to Best Picture. Handling the whole thing as admirably as someone could, director Barry Jenkins rode the wave of emotions on the night like a true professional and is ready to have all the attention on him once again with his second film If Beale Street Could Talk.
Where Moonlight was perhaps intentionally cold and distant, Beale Street instantly feels much warmer and likeable, but once again Jenkins delivers a palpable sense of intimacy with the characters that immediately hooks you and draws you into their world. Moonlight felt transcendent, almost hypnotic in places, and despite its slightly more conventional narrative structure, If Beale Street Could Talk is as equally compelling.
Beale Street tells the story of young lovers, Tish (Layne) and Fonny (James). With Fonny behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish pregnant with his child, she desperately tries to prove his innocence so they can enjoy the family life they had always wanted together. Tish and Fonny deserve to go down as one of the best on-screen couples, certainly in recent memory, and watching them together is enough to make your heart soar. Jenkins’ camera focuses in on their eyes, their touch, and the small gestures, the considered silence and pauses speaking louder than words ever could.
Whilst their love story is at the heart of this film, it also has subtle thematic notions running through it that add even more weight. Its backdrop of racial tensions and discrimination, particularly in the attitude of white police officers towards black males, is something which is incredibly potent, but yet it never goes into preachy territory and never totally dominates over the characters and the narrative. Instead, it provides a background to these characters, and its relevance to today means that despite its period setting, we can instantly relate with them and their experiences.
The warmth and love of Beale Street positively radiates through the screen and there is wonderful tenderness to both Jenkins’ direction and his writing. Particularly in the scenes with Tish’s family which are wonderfully written and astutely observed.
Jenkins is undeniably an exciting filmmaker, and he succeeds in following up Moonlight by more than surpassing the unfairly high expectations placed upon him. It is unfair to compare the two films because they are so different, but Beale Street is undeniably more accessible and much easier watch. It doesn’t stray from some hard-hitting topics, and its ending is crushingly bittersweet, but watching this love story play out is a privilege. Awards success may just be beckoning his name once again…
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo