Friday, October 19, 2018

NYFF: If Beale Street Could Talk


When Miami-born filmmaker released his debut feature "Medicine for Melancholy" back in 2008, even the film's most ardent fans couldn't have predicted the meteoric rise to come in his follow up. From those humble micro-budget beginnings, Jenkins would enter the history books with his sophomore outing "Moonlight", which won the Academy Award for Best Picture 8 years later. Translating an unproduced play into an artful cinematic masterpiece, Jenkins redefined our ideas of what urban male masculinity could look like on screen.

Thankfully, it would only take 2 years for Jenkins return with his third film "If Beale Street Could Talk", a ravishingly gorgeous drama which further cements his status as one of our most important storytellers of the black experience. Based on James Baldwin's novel of the same name, this period piece takes us to early 1970s Harlem, a quintessential African-American neighbourhood. It is in this setting that our young protagonist Tish Rivers (played by the dazzling Kiki Layne) faces the harsh realities of justice in America, as she fearfully hopes for the release of her wrongfully accused fiance (Alonzo "Fonny" Hont, played by Stephan James) from prison. Charged with the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Fonny's outlook is bleak. But the now pregnant Tish and her supportive family are determined to do whatever it takes to clear his name in time to see the birth of his child.

The unjust incarceration facing Fonny is all too common within the black community, an unfortunate fact which the film addresses with frank honesty. As the film's opening quote explains, the Beale Street in the film's title represents not just the location in Harlem, but all the black communities in America and their shared experiences of struggle and perseverance. Indeed, one of the film's most memorable scenes involves an ominous conversation between Fonny and a friend, as he recalls the oppressive fear he felt during his own experience in prison.

But while such familiarly sobering moments are inextricably embedded in the narrative, it is Barry Jenkins' inspired vision which sets the film apart from others set during this time period. While other filmmakers would aim for a "gritty" tone, Jenkins' direction is as elegant as ever, reuniting with many of his "Moonlight" collaborators to create some of the most breathtaking moments you'll see on screen in this year. From Nicholas Britell's jazz-inflected score to James Laxton's picture-perfect cinematography, the film finds the beauty in these black lives, exalting them through his lens as works of art. As such, repeat Oscar nominations should definitely be in store for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. And Regina King should also be in contention for Best Supporting Actress as Tish's mother. Her performance - alongside an outstanding ensemble - beautifully adds further nuance to the story, exploring how family, religion and society influences the lives of this black community.

Indeed, there's no denying Jenkins' love for his characters, which shines through in the way the camera lingers on their faces and leans in to attentively listen to their perspective on the world around them. This is especially true when the film focuses on the central love story between Tish and Fonny. While the film admittedly drags slightly when it reverts to the more dispiriting legal procedural, it absolutely soars in the depiction of their romance. The sincerity and purity of their love is truly euphoric to witness.

And ultimately, the bittersweet withdrawal from that euphoria makes the film's message resonate deeply. "If Beale Street Could Talk" shows how love transcends the hardships imposed by the American nightmare. And it is only through the proliferation of love's beauty and humanity in future generations like Tish's unborn child, that we can truly call it the American dream.

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