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If Beale Street Could Talk

I never completely got on board with Moonlight. As a general rule of thumb, I find that if it takes an 11-minute video essay for me to sufficiently understand why something is a work of genius, maybe it’s just not for me. That said, while I was vocally cheering for La La Land to win Best Picture, I can admit with the benefit of hindsight that I had backed the wrong horse. Moonlight took the trophy, and the film industry as a whole is better for it. But that doesn’t mean I’m in any kind of rush to give Moonlight another watch.

Maybe it’s just that Barry Jenkins made his big breakthrough with Moonlight, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. Maybe I was simply caught off-guard by how bold and innovative his style of filmmaking was. With that in mind, let’s take a look at his follow-up: If Beale Street Could Talk, in which writer/director Jenkins adapts the book by James Baldwin.

Our plot revolves around Tish Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, respectively played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James. Close friends since childhood, they finally became romantic partners as young adults, and the movie opens with the news that Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child. There are just two problems, one minor and one major. The minor problem is that the two of them aren’t married, which is really only a problem for Fonny’s self-righteous, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, stuck-up bitch of a mother (played by Aunjanue Ellis). Mercifully, Fonny’s mother is out of the movie after one scene, but not before begging the uncomfortable question of how spiteful and malicious a woman has to be before her husband is justified in slapping her. But I digress.

The major problem is that Fonny is currently in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Long story short, a Puerto Rican woman (Victoria Rogers, played by Emily Rios) was raped and she testified that Fonny was the culprit, right before flying back to the safety of her home country. Never mind that Fonny was halfway across town at the time of the assault, his alibi is thin and the DA is putting pressure on the one witness who can corroborate. Meanwhile, the judge and the DA keep throwing in bureaucratic shenanigans to delay and postpone and delay and postpone, mounting up the legal bills as Fonny stays in jail indefinitely without a conviction.

Right off the bat, we’re dealing with rape charges, which are notoriously difficult to prove or disprove. (Especially before DNA testing — this is set in the early ’70s.) Hell, it’s hard enough to figure out why the alleged victim doesn’t want to step forward: Is Victoria complicit in railroading an innocent man, or is she unable to relive the worst event of her life? Or maybe she really was raped, and she convinced herself that the cops really had their man, just so she could close the book on all this. In any event, there’s one deeply uncomfortable moment when Tish has to ask if maybe Victoria really was raped. That’s how desperate this situation is: A woman is sincerely asking if the alleged rape victim is making all of this up. And to the film’s credit, the other characters are swift in shutting down that particular line of inquiry.

While slut-shaming and sexism are prominent themes, the movie’s real bread and butter is institutional racism. The filmmakers are thoroughly ruthless in their depiction of a system that uses people of color as convenient scapegoats for any crime under the sun. A system in which white cops and politicians flood the system with more detainees than the courts and judges can handle, forcing cases further and further back until the accused has no choice but to take a plea bargain. All the while, the accused and their families are driven further and further into debt, due to lost wages and mounting legal fees. Thus the indebted people of color must raise money either through finding a job (opening themselves up to workplace harassment and more labor for less pay) or through criminal enterprises (thus feeding into the aforementioned criminal system).

The good news is, as the poet said, “freedom” is just another word for “nothing left to lose.” People of color have gotten by this far without any money, so why start worrying about money now? Especially when worrying about money is exactly what the PTB are counting on? Far better to stay hopeful and keep on working through it all, because fuck them. Against a system bent on crushing hope and destroying lives, simply keeping optimistic and staying alive can be a victory.

I want to stress emphatically that while this movie makes a lot of hard statements and presents some difficult scenarios with unflinching brutality, it’s not all soul-crushing depression. For example, Dave Franco appears briefly in a welcome comic relief role. We’ve also got Diego Luna and Brian Tyree Henry, each providing some welcome levity as old friends of our two main characters. Hell, I’d even lump in Fonny’s mother with the comic relief, just because she was so much fun to hate and watching her get a verbal beatdown was greatly satisfying.

We also have Fonny’s father (played by Michael Beach), Tish’s parents (played by Regina King and Colman Domingo), and Tish’s sister (Teyonah Parris). These supporting players are all a crucial part of what keeps this movie watchable because they’re all such pillars of strength in their own way. Watching them interact with Tish, seeing how they all support each other and pull each other through all the awful shit going on, it’s truly inspiring and empowering. If the Tish/Fonny relationship is the heart of the movie, Tish’s relationship with her family members is the muscle that keeps it all moving forward.

This is where we get to the greatest strength of the film, and to Barry Jenkins’ greatest strength as a filmmaker: Intimacy. Between the performances, the camerawork, and the writing, it’s astounding how every conversation in this movie is dripping with authenticity and dramatic weight. Jenkins shows a preternatural skill with close-ups, effortlessly using them to draw the audience in and help us connect with these characters in a visceral, palpable way. Even better, while the story is told in a non-linear fashion, the choices in editing and lighting aren’t nearly as distracting or flashy as they were in Moonlight.

Probably my favorite example comes just before the 90-minute mark, when we see a character putting on her hair and makeup. It’s a long, extended sequence that doesn’t advance the plot in any appreciable way, and nothing of any consequence happens. But the performance is so absolutely flawless, and the visuals are so perfectly on point, that every frame tells us something about this character and what she’s going through in the moment. The cast and crew are so incredibly talented that they could make such a mundane task endlessly compelling to watch, and that’s probably the greatest compliment I could hope to pay any storyteller.

I could go all day singing the praises of KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, and Colman Domingo, for each and every one of them turns in a performance worthy of multiple awards nominations. Hell, there isn’t a dud to be found in the entire cast. That said, I’m getting a little tired of Ed Skrein getting villainous roles. Watching him play the film’s resident two-dimensionally evil white cop struck me as a little too easy. Then again, it really says something about this movie that it could bring in such a transparently evil white racist character and still come off as perfectly authentic.

If Beale Street Could Talk may have more straightforward visuals than Moonlight, but the camerawork and editing still pack a major punch. The movie is blunt yet empowering, intimate and intelligent, heartwarming and uncompromising, superbly acted and beautifully crafted, undeniably heavy while effectively utilizing comic relief.

Believe the hype, folks — this is absolutely Best Picture material. Highly recommended.

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