New York Film Festival Review: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

One thing was evident at the outset of the New York Film Festival screening of Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which Jenkins has adapted from James Baldwin’s novel, and that’s the writer/director’s confidence.  Everything within this touching tale makes it evident that Jenkins is well aware of what he is doing to create a story with maximal impact.

Regularly in the film we are treated to characters, in close-up, looking directly at the camera as they converse.  We, the audience, are substituted in for the second person in the conversation.  We are being looked at.  We are being examined as much as anyone, or anything, else. Our souls are being searched as the main characters, Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) stare into the camera.  It is haunting and doesn’t make one squirm in their seat as much as it causes an intense return of the same stare.  Just as our souls are being examined, we too can look into the soul of the character staring at us from the screen.

This bi-directional effect causes a closeness to the storyline that wouldn’t otherwise be felt. It is masterful.

Jenkins also has a great handle on the use of sound within the film.  The director knows exactly when silence is better than music.  He knows when sound effects are better than either.  The movie’s auditory sense is as powerful as the visuals.

There is a deft touch to the entire affair, which is both a wonderful love story and a maddening one as well.  Fonny ends up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit because a police officer has it out for him, and Tish finds out she is pregnant with his baby after he is already behind bars.  Not yet convicted, the trial is delayed and delayed as the defense hunts for the victim of the crime, who has disappeared.

The movie weaves back and forth between the tale of the burgeoning love between Fonny and Tish, who have been friends since childhood, and the period of Fonny’s incarceration. Despite knowing exactly what is going to take place in the latter time period, the audience still cheers for this young couple as they do their best to figure out how to move forward in New York City with ambition but little money and racism always at their heels in the earlier period.

Although Tish’s parents (Colman Domingo and Regina King) and sister (Teyonah Parris) are happy with the match, as is Fonny’s father (Michael Beach), Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) want nothing to do with the Rivers.  A scene where both families sit together and talk starts out as tense before turning funny and then horrifying.  Jenkins and the cast, who are fantastic, are able to walk us all through these emotions in a way that feels utterly natural and real.

On top of everything mentioned above, Jenkins has a soft touch with the movie.  There are messages throughout for the audience to pick up, but they are just that – for the audience to pick up.  Jenkins does not bash us over our head with them.  They might be clear, but they are not thrust at the viewer.

It is particularly interesting to note how Jenkins deals with the crime of which Fonny has been accused – rape.  Tish, who offers a voiceover throughout the film, explains how, unequivocally, Fonny cannot be guilty of the crime and yet, the crime did take place.  The movie makes no bones about that.  It is the police who foisted Fonny upon the victim, not the victim who is in error.

While it might have been easy to allow this portion of the film to become about blaming the victim, that does not occur.  It is made clear, more than once, that she has been forced into her accusation.

The film finds sympathy with her rather than hate.  It could easily have been otherwise, but it is not.  Jenkins seems to care about everyone who has been forced into a difficult situation by those in power, and while this is not the victim’s story, one wonders what he would do were he telling her tale.

Everything in “If Beale Street Could Talk” makes it clear that “Moonlight” was not a one-off success for Jenkins.  He is a powerful filmmaker with a lot to say and it will be exciting to get to watch his work for years to come.

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photo credit:  Annapurna Pictures

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