Jenkins’ love for his characters and a place and time long gone glows with warmth and radiance in this intoxicating slow-burner.
Dir. Barry Jenkins
2018 | USA | Drama/Romance | 119 mins | 2.00:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for language and some sexual content
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Plot: A young woman embraces her pregnancy while she and her family set out to prove her childhood friend and lover innocent of a crime he didn’t commit.
Awards: Won 1 Oscar – Best Supporting Actress. Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore Film Society screening)
With his third feature, writer-director Barry Jenkins has very much solidified his status as an emerging voice of independent American cinema, notably his compassionate rendering of the African-American experience for the big screen.
His Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016)—who could forget the fiasco surrounding the announcement of the 2017 Best Picture winner—remains a modern touchstone. While his follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, is nowhere near as buzzy or talked-about, I’m of the opinion that it is the more accomplished film.
One could say that it is more precise and calculated, but what struck me most about Beale Street is its rigourous self-containment—that it does not accept any other world or reality except that of the protagonists.
Peter Debruge of ‘Variety’ was spot-on when he remarked, “The movie quotes [James] Baldwin as saying, “every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” but this one may as well be located inside a snow globe.”
This ‘snow globe’ effect is obvious from the get-go, and in fact the heightened sense of place and time (the Harlem of 1970s, now long gone), and Jenkins’ passionate love for his characters glow with warmth and radiance, operating like an intoxicating slow-burner.
“I don’t want to sound foolish, but remember love is what brought you here. And if you’ve trusted love this far, don’t panic now. Trust it all the way.”
Adapted from the novel by Baldwin, Beale Street is a love story that is also a tragedy of sorts: a young black man and woman fall in love, but because of deep-seated racial hate, the man, painfully awaiting trial, is kept behind bars after being accused of raping a stranger. Their love is pure, consummated even, and Jenkins wants us to know that nothing can separate the couple, no matter how trying.
The performances by the two leads, KiKi Layne and Stephan James, are quietly powerful in their despair, while the supporting cast do great work, particularly in an early sequence involving the couple’s respective parents as they come to terms with an unexpected piece of news.
Much of why Beale Street works so well for me is its extraordinary original score by Nicholas Britell, which I would describe as similar in essence to Carter Burwell’s work for Carol (2015), with strains of Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver (1976).
The allusion to Todd Haynes’ film here is no coincidence because like Carol, Beale Street is about that ‘impossible’ love—the constant longing for the other, and the wishing that perhaps in another time and reality, there would be less discrimination and hate.