Following his Oscar winning triumph, Moonlight, Barry Jenkins brings us his latest feature – a tale of unyielding love between two young African-Americans in New York.
The set-up of If Beale Street Could Talk is made almost instantly clear. Lifelong friends Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) have become one. Their love is pure, but with Alonzo wrongfully facing jail-time and Tish expecting his child, they face an uphill struggle to maintain their relationship and bring a baby into the world. Tish says, mournfully, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
Early scenes are mesmeric. Jenkins has bathed the film with a warm glow that wraps you up into this dream-like romance. He lingers and moves slowly through scenes with a tranquillity, observing his characters in minute detail. Drenched in a raw, vivid orchestral score which eases you through every second – heavy on strings with flourishes of brass and flute – it really is a beautiful film in every sense.
That beauty is perhaps too uncompromised, however. Throughout the two-hour run-time their love is barely challenged. From an emotional point of view there is very little progression from the 20th minute to the final scene. While inspiring in its purity, there is something dissatisfying about that lack of evolution.
Perhaps the problem lies in the film’s structure. From the very first moments of the film we are told to accept Tish and Alonzo’s undying love. There is no build-up of tension from early courtship. We don’t get to see them grow into a couple. We are instantly introduced to the finished product. These structural issues probably come directly from the book from which it’s adapted, and perhaps cannot be avoided, but it is to the film’s detriment that we don’t see the first glances or the moment they first fall for each other.
Despite this fact, there are few directors who are capable of capturing love like Barry Jenkins. His trademark has already become those straight-to-camera portrait shots, like some kind of love lens, placing us in the rose-tinted perspective of his love-struck characters. He places great focus on the face, capturing the wide, gleaming eyes that look straight into your soul.
The romantic element is not Beale Street’s greatest strength, though. Where it excels is the portrayal of a broken legal system, which enables hateful police officers to throw black lives into a cell and throw away the key, regardless of logic or evidence. There is an under-the-surface anger to Jenkins’ storytelling. But he delivers it with a gentle touch which seems to reflect the director’s personality. He tackles heavy subjects with a deftness, carving a precise, pointed message in the midst of an unrelentingly wholesome love story.
Watching two people who are hopelessly in love being hopelessly in love for two hours is not always gripping. But when Jenkins shines a light on the horrid prejudices placed on black people in the US, that is when it sucks you in and breaks your heart. A scene between Alonzo and friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) is particularly sucker-punching, as they analyse the hopeless nature of being a black man in 70s America.
If Beale Street Could Talk does suffer a little bit from second album syndrome – it’s hard not to yearn for the perfection of Moonlight at times. But make no mistake Barry Jenkins is one of the best new directors in the business. What he does next will be tremendously exciting, and what he has already done is quite something.
Image credit: Movie DB