Barry Jenkins/ USA/ 2018/ 117 mins
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 22 Feb 2018
James Baldwin‘s writing is like being beaten by pure silk. Both a polemicist and a sensualist, his style is as gritty and furious as it is rich and seductive. It’s a difficult balance to bring to the screen, but Barry Jenkins is the perfect person to attempt just that. Moonlight showed his skill in using an artistic sensibility to tell an immersive individual story rooted in wider societal concerns. His storytelling medium is, of course, different, but he uses his poetic visual sense as an analogue for Baldwin’s words, resulting in a sultry and bewitching melodrama that delivers its message through caresses instead of fists.
Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are a young couple who are flushed and intoxicated by their love, which has slowly flowered over a lifetime as friends. Fonny is then imprisoned awaiting trial for a horrific crime he didn’t commit, fitted up by a spiteful racist police officer (Ed Skrein). Tish discovers she is pregnant and must deal with impending motherhood while she and her loyal family do everything they can to convince a justice system stacked against them of Fonny’s innocence.
It’s difficult knowing what to praise first in this remarkable work. What strikes the viewer immediately is the gorgeous cinematography in tandem with Jenkins love of close-ups that ache with silent eloquence. The director credits Wong Kar-Wai‘s masterpiece In the Mood for Love as an influence and its easy to see why. There is the same eye for period details, the same saturated pastel colours, and a camera attracted to its beautiful stars like moths to a flame.
Layne and James are wonderful as the young lovers, ripping out your heart in one scene and suturing it with hope the next as they navigate the jumping timelines of the narrative. This is part of the film’s seduction. The knowledge of the pair’s situation never overshadows the joy of the next scene in which they’re arm in arm as they stroll through a vibrant Autumn afternoon, or share their first tender and tentative lovemaking.
Although beauty is the chief watchword, Beale Street is full of the pain of injustice and the ache of true love being pulled apart. It never descends into fatalism, however. Jenkins has elided some of the harsher edges of Baldwin’s text, preferring to allude to the wider issues with black-and-white stills of police brutality and young black men in handcuffs. He also skates between humour and hate within scenes, with an early scene of a family get together to announce Tish’s pregnancy evoking hilarity, awkwardness, and conflict all at once. It’s a tonal dance to match the jazzy time signatures of the film itself.
Baldwin himself once said that adapting literature to film involves, “Doing considerable violence to the written word,” but Jenkins has bottled the spirit of his writing, even in this act. If Beale Street Could Talk is a film of deep humanism with a bubbling undercurrent of righteous anger that is all the more potent in that it never overflows and overshadows its characters. It’s a more mainstream film than Moonlight but it is even better. Barry Jenkins has undoubtedly sealed his reputation as one of modern cinemas great visual stylists.