2018 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: If there was a film walking into the theater of Walter Reade, and later tonight at the Apollo, with more to prove than Barry Jenkins’ newest film “If Beale Street Could Talk,” you couldn’t point it out. In a daring and utterly transcendent experience of the soul, Barry Jenkins has seemed to harness the holy spirit with his masterful cinematic opus. Ravishing sets, sumptuous costumes, heavenly performances, stunning cinematography, and exquisite music are just parts of the whole that sum up to one of the most exceptional movie events this year.
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” tells the story of Tish (played by Kiki Layne), a woman in Harlem who desperately scrambles to prove her fiance Fonny’s (played by Stephan James) innocence of a crime while she carries their first child. With support and obstacles along the way, the passion of these two young people become a portrait of love and family, at all costs.
It’s quite a task to follow-up the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” with such assurance as Jenkins demonstrates in both his techniques as a director and writer. Adapting the novel by James Baldwin, Jenkins delivers black love in a way we’ve never experienced. In past films that have used this subject as its focus, a natural direction is to focus on the obstacles that befall a couple against the backdrops of racism and inequality. Jenkins, brilliantly, utilizes these devices as supporting items to further strengthen our connection to Fonny and Tish. We are just in love with them as they are with each other.
In cinema, the broken home is a standard depicted when dealing with African-Americans as its subject. Jenkins shows honor and respect in a way I’ve never seen. It becomes the premier example of why we need people of color consistently making films and stories from these underserved communities. Only someone who is embedded within this culture can understand the underlying themes and nuances that a couple of color face together. The currency of love is amplified in every interaction with not only each other but their family members.
The assembling and reunification of Jenkins’ team from “Moonlight” have never been put to better use. Nicholas Brittell‘s tearful and moving music is the crowning achievement of his career. He’s never been more entrenched in the cinematic beats of a film or more aware of his power as a composer. Caroline Eselin‘s colorful and eye-popping costumes act as bedrocks to each chapter that the story unveils while Mark Friedberg‘s precise and detailed production design lay the viewer in the period with grace and truth. Back on editing duties, Joi McMillon (the first African-American woman nominated for Best Editing at the Academy Awards for “Moonlight” in 2015) and Nat Sanders relish in the moments of silence, allowing the observer to understand the sheer veracity and pain of all our central characters.
You can’t find enough adjectives to describe what James Laxton accomplishes with his camera work. Channeling the movement of Emmanuel Lubezki with the framing of Roger Deakins, and then littered with the dramatic intensity of Conrad L. Hall, the cinematographer gives a masterclass on shooting films that will be felt for decades to come.
The performances on display are an embarrassment of riches, beginning with Kiki Layne and Stephan James. Layne, in her feature film debut, is organic and selective in her reveals of Tish. She doesn’t just unload it all at one, explosive moment as we’ve seen in traditional movies. Layne acts as the audience’s mother. We walk alongside her, much like a child, too young to understand in the inner workings of the woman who provides for us consistently. We look up at her, randomly, no real reason other than we adore her presence. She gives us treats every few steps on our journey, telling us to savor those moments because another one may not come for some time. We’re cherishing these sweet drops of raw sincerity. By film’s end, we’ve walked the course, and cuddled in her warm embrace, Layne emerges as the definitive makings of a brilliant actress that we should never take for granted.
Stephan James approaches his role differently. He harbors a love for Tish that pours out of his skin, but you see inner conflicts that plague any man of color, especially during this period. What does it mean to be “a man?” Feverishly aggressive to provide and prove his worth, we see Fonny at his most confident to his most vulnerable states. A whirlwind of emotions, James is a kaleidoscope of sensations, all more beautiful than the next.
The definition of support cannot be overstated as shown by the works of this passionate and fruitful ensemble. Regina King is delectable as ever, showcasing her range as an actress, and forging forward as one of the great treasures of our generation. Acting as an emotional anchor, this is King’s single best performance of her already illustrious career. Brian Tyree Henry who, in one impactful scene, opens the floodgates of love, despair, anger, and anxiety. In a year that has been littered with terrific roles in films like “Widows” and “White Boy Rick,” Henry has planted his feet and owns a fabulous year for cinema. Colman Domingo shatters the movie theater with energy and infectious laughter while Teyonah Parris gives new meaning to loyalty and sisterhood.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is righteous. Worthy of any and every accolade that will be thrown its way. As a self-proclaimed lover and vocal admirer of “Moonlight,” I would dare say that this may have topped the Best Picture winner in every way. Bombastic drama with subtle yet playful commentary on family and love, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is the turning point in our cinematic culture and what it dares to become. The future is bright, and it is good with Barry Jenkins in tow.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” will be distributed by Annapurna Pictures and opens in theaters on Nov. 30. It will premiere at the Apollo Theater on Oct. 9 during the New York Film Festival.