barry jenkins by Julia Sarantis December 4, 2018
For people of color in the film industry, receiving awards and gold statues, or getting critical acclaim at a film festival does not guarantee one’s career to catapult into superstardom, in comparison to white filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses.
Indeed, there are eight years wedged between filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ first feature film Medicine for Melancholy and his second feature and Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture, Moonlight.
Nonetheless, Jenkins has followed up his 2016 Oscar-winning film, Moonlight, with another devastatingly beautiful film, called If Beale Street Could Talk, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name.
Incredibly, Jenkins adapted Baldwin’s novel into a screenplay in just six weeks. And if that timeline isn’t impressive enough, at the same time Jenkins was writing the screenplay for Beale Street, he wrote the screenplay to Moonlight. Talk about a productive 6 weeks!
Last Friday night, I was able to attend a screening of Barry Jenkins’ latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk at the SVA Theater, in Chelsea.
The film follows the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends who fall in love but whose communion is interrupted when Fonny is accused of a crime he did not commit. With the help of those around her, Tish fights to free her husband from prison before the birth of their child.
Jumping between the past and present, Beale Street is a crucial depiction of young Black love and the gentle romance is transmitted through Tish’s POV. The dreamy traverses back in time are exquisitely executed by cinematographer, James Laxton, who previously teamed up with Jenkins for Moonlight.
The past sequences are saturated with color to convey the early tender stages of falling in love — in which every detail of the quotidian is heightened, takes on new meaning, and resonance — all of which serves to amplify the devastating impact when this love is crudely obstructed and denied by a climate of anti-Blackness.
In the sequences in which we step back in time, there is a lot of movement in the camera work. In a scene where Tish and Fonny negotiate buying a loft in Brooklyn, a sweeping 360-shot captures the two lovers acting out the day in which they will move into the apartment, imagining where the fridge and dining table will go, in this new, albeit, decayed space.
Preceding this moment, however, Fonny expresses skepticism over the Jewish landlord’s willingness to provide housing to the young Black couple.
While Fonny and the audience are taken aback by the landlord’s readiness to hand over the loft space to them, when Fonny relays the couple’s past discriminatory experiences in their apartment search, the scene exposes how Black Americans have systematically denied access to the most fundamentally way in which one can attain a sense of place or stability — that of home ownership.
It is a form of discrimination that not only underlines a material loss but accentuates and sustains a sense of displacement and estrangement from the rest of society.
Though Jenkins’ third feature film is a period piece, the social issues of mass incarceration, anti-Black policing, housing discrimination that pervade the film, are all too familiar and visible today — transcending the temporal barriers of the past, present and future. After all, this is a film based on the words of Baldwin.
His authorial voice most emphatically comes through in a riveting 12-minute scene between Fonny and his friend, Daniel, who reveals his recent incarceration for a crime he did not commit. The dialogue exchanged between them is quintessential Baldwin, and is a scathing and harrowing exhibition of what it means to be Black in America.
Relaying the horrors of his time in prison, the conversation starts nonchalantly but builds until a knot forms in the pit of our stomach of viewers as we watch Daniel’s eyes widen, barely blinking, not even seeming present with Fonny, but elsewhere, as if his consciousness is lost to the “sunken place” depicted in Jordan Peele’s horror film, Get Out.
The soundscape elevates this feeling, as it is dominated by a rumble that at times, supersedes Daniel’s dialogue — leaving viewers completely immersed as his words vehemently rupture the state of amnesia most white Americans are implicated in.
As the film goes on, Jenkins’ auteurship is rendered visible more and more. He inserts a dream sequence and moments of slow-motion that are often paired with a contrasting music score, crafted by the highly talented Nicholas Britell, that engrosses viewers in the consciousness of the film’s characters.
Jenkins employs freeze frames on Fonny’s face, in which time compresses and dilates, suggesting the young lover’s consummation is only truly possible outside of linear time — where they can escape the oppressive linear temporality that underpins white supremacy.
Additionally, Jenkins’ circular camera movements culminate into a moment of cinematic perfection in a stunning scene that captures Fonny, illuminated by a beaming light from above, tirelessly perfecting and molding a sculpture he crafted.
And finally, there is Jenkins’ use of close-ups and direct addresses to the audiences that have become somewhat of a signature of the director. Just as in Moonlight, Jenkins’ film is punctuated by several close-ups of the actors in which the actors deliver lines directly into the camera.
This direct address to the audience breaks the illusion of the narrative taking place in a distinct and distant world space and thwarts the typically passive viewing process of cinematic spectatorship.
To echo the New York Times writer Angela Flournoy in her review of Beale Street, these moments for nonblack audience members,
“might be the first time they’ve had a black person direct such a gaze their way… For a black viewer, there’s more likely a kind of recognition: I know that face, although I have never seen this actor before.”
I read these moments as containing a kind of timelessness. Viewers ruminate on these faces and Jenkins’ gives us a lot of time to do so.
In a powerful scene, in which Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King), stares at her reflection in the mirror, fixing and perfecting her wig placement, the scene exposes the historicity of the politics surrounding Black women’s hair, and more pointedly, the regulating and oppression of Black women.
Importantly, Sharon’s role in the narrative is emblematic of the way Black women take on burden’s of their families and communities, as generations of Black men became victims to the draconian institutions of the state.
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Overall, Jenkins successfully depicts the gentleness and tenderness of first love, while not leaving behind the gravity and implications of Tish and Fonny’s love, as they must endlessly fight to carve out a life for themselves in a climate of anti-Blackness.
Jenkins’ approach pays homage to Baldwin’s own writing style that wavers between being intensely sensual and intimate, and at the same time, is laden with a darkness and bleakness when describing the realities that define the Black experience.
If Beale Street Could Talk will be released in theaters across the nation on December 14th.