Director of MOONLIGHT continues to shine

Some movies evoke a physical response. It’s in the body. Soma. A combination of visuals, music, acting, and all the rest that meld together to form a more perfect union. If Beale Street Could Talk is one such movie.

There’s so much to laud about Beale Street, but the scenes of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) walking the streets of Harlem in the early 1970s as Nicholas Britell’s score takes over the theater are the most sublime in all of cinema this year. Truly breathtaking.

The trailer gave a hint of this aspect of the film, but the story itself comes from hallowed ground, the mind of writer James Baldwin, one of the preeminent minds of the second half of the last century. He took to the screen himself in last year’s I Am Not Your Negro. Here, his fiction takes center stage.

The man who makes the magic come alive is director and writer Barry Jenkins, following up on 2016’s Moonlight with a film that puts him in the upper echelon of filmmakers working today. He’s truly at the height of his powers and appears to be able to craft amazing movies using any subject matter he sets his eye upon.

Here the subject is young love. Or racial inequality. Or the next generation trying to be free. It’s a melange, and any attempt to separate these ideas leave the whole in tatters.

The love between Tish and Fonny is so pure, so heartfelt, so innocent, so enviable it enraptures the audience from the first moments they stare into each others’ eyes. And they do this a lot. It feels like they (and we) could just sit in it forever.

There’s very little time to completely enjoy this affair, however, because the other overarching issue in the film is Fonny’s incarceration. Told alternatively from before and after the incident that put him in jail, we only get the young lovers’ back story in full as we also see the efforts to correct this unjust imprisonment.

The idea of a black man being treated unfairly in America, especially in a time just after Jim Crow left the law books, isn’t surprising. Beale Street doesn’t preach. It doesn’t have to. Racial injustice is the water they breathe, and figuring out how to deal with it is just another depressing fact of everyday life.

None of this saps energy from the story itself. Jenkins gives the characters plenty of room to breath, and the entire cast brings their best to the work. Layne and James shine, holding the weight of the relationship on their shoulders. Regina King and Colman Domingo play Tish’s parents to a tee, struggling to see their daughter make her way in this harsh world.

Whether or not Jenkins gets to hold another Oscar aloft in a few months is yet to be seen, but he has once again given audiences a gorgeous movie that plumbs the depths of human kindness as well as inhuman cruelty. If Beale Street Could Talk takes great material, makes it concrete with a series of tremendous aesthetic choices, and produces as good film as we’re likely to get this, or any, year.

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