If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) by Barry Jenkins
Review by Rilwan Balogun
Every director has a style. In each movie they helm you can see it. It’s no different with Barry Jenkins in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” what I’ve noticed is that he wants you to see and feel everything the characters do. That’s why he holds those straight-on tight shots. He forces us to make eye contact with the characters. Eye to eye. In TV production, you’re taught not to do this because it’s jarring for the audience. It’s awkward. The first times Jenkins does this, I looked away. I was uncomfortable. Maybe that’s what he wants. Maybe not. But it’s definitely what I felt.
This isn’t a story with a happy ending and happily ever after. You’ll probably leave upset. It’s one where the characters deal with the cards they are dealt. Life. Throughout the movie, Jenkins wants it clear that Stephan James’ character is not different than other men in jail with him. That being falsely accused happens to many that look like him. So, at the close of this movie, you don’t leave warm and fuzzy because they got him out of jail. But you sit with feeling uncomfortable and sad. This is the point. Baldwin’s work is explicit in this, it was hard being black in America. So hard that many artists, Baldwin included, left America. Stephan James’ character also wants to leave America because it is too hard to bare being hated.
I don’t think there’s one villain in the sense of fairy tell storytelling. Yes, you hate the cop who set Fonny up because Fonny had the gall to stand up and defend himself to a white cop. You are upset at the system Fonny is dealt with. You even dislike Fonny’s mother and sister for being so cold. But I don’t believe they are villains but a result of their circumstances. Then, when you want to be mad at Victoria for falsely accusing Fonny. You can’t. Because she also is a victim. No one denies that she was raped. She breaks down when Regina King’s character comes to get her to say Fonny didn’t rape her. She yells after King forces her to look at the picture of Tish and Fonny. When King touches her, she loses it. It’s led to believe that Victoria reacts this way because she begins to relive her rape. This gave me gut wrenching pain. Especially, during this #MeToo movement. Victoria believes Fonny raped her. Do you want to be the one to tell a victim that they are lying?You are mad at her and want her to take a closer look at that picture and realize that she misidentified Fonny but you do sympathize with her.
Pain is what you see in Fonny’s face when Tish makes her second jail visit. From the moment his face appears on scream, you notice a change. It’s the brilliance of James’ acting to wear his emotions. Tish notices the same difference too. The toll of being behind bars, for nothing, is weighing on him. Fonny slams his hand on the table due to frustration, I jumped. It pulled me out of my seat because I was also mad. The bang on the table reverberates.
This is what Jenkins and the production does extremely well. The use of sound throughout this film transports you to that space. When Fonny and Tish are first intimate, you hear the rain outside, you’re there with them. The way Jenkins holds the camera on the two as they hold one another. The awkwardness of removing your clothes. The weirdness of waiting for your partner. These are all the emotions you have before you become intimate. I felt that watching the two of them. Jenkins makes the audience stay in this with the two of them.
Jenkins and frankly directors of color are so necessary. They understand how important it is to light black bodies. Coming from someone who works in television, lighting is my best friend. You don’t light everyone the same. I’ve half joked too many times to count, “make sure the flash is on so you can see me,” it’s a joke to get laughs but also me being frank. Let’s, not ignore the costume designer either. I need to become more confident in wearing yellow because that color makes the black skin pop in ways other colors can’t. In this film, you’re seeing black bodies wear more than neutral colors. Everyone is wearing bright colors.
Regina King plays the mother we all need. The one that even when you may have disappointed her plans for you, she will support you. She flies to Puerto Rico to try and get this woman to tell the truth.
When King’s character puts on her wig, to me, it is as if she’s putting on her armor. She is getting ready for battle. In Puerto Rico she does this before meeting a man that will lead her to Victoria. She needs to be brave. She even breaks down when she’s faking this strength she knows she needs. But the next scene when she meets Victoria, the wig is gone. She is vulnerable.
King is one of the reasons I was drawn to this movie also to see what Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight would be. But every single actor in this piece goes above and beyond. From the cutting eyes by Aunjanue Ellis to Brian Tyree Henry giving us another performance we don’t deserve. Newcomer Kiki Layne holds her own standing next to heavyweights. She did a good performance and I can’t wait to watch what she does next. Each cast member brought their A game. If this movie isn’t nominated for ensemble cast, all award shows deserve to come to an end.
All in all, this movie will stay with you. It makes me want to grab a James Baldwin book and be transported to life in the ‘50s but when you remember his writing - it’s a time not safe to be black. This movie has slowly made its way into more theaters. I think they are banking on word of mouth and awards shows to help get it to more eyes. This is exactly what happened with Moonlight. I think and hope the Academy gives everyone a nomination.