If Beale Street Could Talk – Methodical and Melancholic

In an interview for Little White Lies, film-maker Barry Jenkins said that in his early 20’s an ex-girlfriend gave him Giovanni’s Room (1956) to read after they broke up, as she hoped it would help him to mature as a person. I saw this, and ordered the acclaimed novel of Amazon straight away, not really in an attempt to grow up (though perhaps I need it), but more as an attempt to match my intake of art with one of the great working artists. For those that don’t know, Giovanni’s Room is a novel written by James Baldwin about a man living in Paris, who has an incredibly sensual affair with a barman called Giovanni whilst he is waiting for his girlfriend to return from Spain. The book covers the burning passion of the encounters, and the subsequent guilt afterwards, along with the trials of the heart the characters put upon each-other. It is a remarkable experience to read Giovanni’s Room, and at 150 pages long, it only takes a few sittings to get through it, however the journey is so exquisite that you wish that it was longer. Like any piece of fiction that touches on love, I was entranced by it, holding onto every word, every sentence and every segment of dialogue. It is beautiful literature, that works as a narrator recollecting memories, reaching for emotions over specific events, and Barry Jenkins reproduces this style in If Beale Street Could Talk. The film is an adaptation of one of Baldwin’s later works, that I haven’t read yet (it’s in the post), however you can see Baldwin’s prose breathing through Jenkins’ directing.

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Barry Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight (2016) won ‘best picture’ at the Oscars, so you could say there was a fair deal of pressure on him for his next attempt, especially since many critics have cited that film as a masterpiece. Moonlight is an art-house film, that I enjoyed but didn’t love, because I think that it has more flaws than people care to point out, however I appreciate its importance and its technical mastery. Beale Street is a triumph, and a true adaptation of the feelings that Baldwin evokes in his writing, with my main point being that Jenkins has transformed a novel to a film, and not simply wrote a movie script from a book that he’s a fan of. It’s essentially a love story, about two young people who have grown up in the same neighbourhood together – Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). They are torn apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, and sent to jail, only learning that Tish is pregnant with his child once he is inside. Jenkins weaves the plot around this event, by showing the relationship beforehand and the attempts after by Tish’s family to free Fonny by clearing his name. The film has a rhythmic and lyrical sensibility to it, where scenes flow together smoothly, with the camera moving like a floating poltergeist watching down on their surviving family. It is soft and florid at times, creating a weightless and dreamy look to the flashback scenes of Tish and Fonny, but that doesn’t mean it is not vibrant, or lifeless. The colours are warm and hue-y, with Jenkins pushing in and out from the characters as though we are focusing in on their thoughts. A stunning score by Nicholas Britell is placed over the top of all this, and the music is where the film begins to strangle you, leading you to be lost in the world of the film. The track titled ‘Agape’ is the one that will break you. This melancholia is constantly present in Baldwin’s writing, as is an honest respect for romance, and lust, which Jenkins threads throughout the runtime.

Jenkins has made few films, and people have only been properly aware of him since Moonlight, but he already has his own style and signature moves. The most obvious example of this would be the way that he makes his actors stare directly at the camera, but much has been wrote about that, by far more qualified people than me. What I enjoy about his film-making, is his compassion and his lack of cynicism when it comes to romantic and poetic moments. He treats these moments with a tactile advance, and in Beale Street, you can’t help feel full of love and joy during these scenes. Whether its Tish’s sister telling her to un-bow her head, or a wonderful scene between Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), where Daniel tells him of the trouble he faced in prison. It’s a great scene not only because of the content of the discussion, but Jenkins positions it perfectly, where the camera slowly drifts from Fonny to Daniel as they speak and the performances the two actors give are completely captivating. The sex scene is endearing, where Jenkins elongates the build up in silence, until Fonny reminds her that she is safe, and that he would never hurt her. Jenkins fills the screen with their bodies, and we can see the sweat pouring off them, as they tentatively come closer together, framing them with no perversion, relying on their acute chemistry. Baldwin’s sex in Giovanni’s Room is much of the same, where it is formulaic to a point of mechanical physical contact, and people are attracted to one another so they do something about it, in an essence of sweetness and raw human nature.

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Another aspect of Baldwin’s writing that Jenkins manages to capture is the story playing out like the narrator is recollecting memories. Tish is guiding us through the events with her voice, remembering details of how she feels physically, staying distant from what is actually happening. This makes the experience emotionally investing, because you are keying in and out of moments as Tish remembers them. Jenkins structures the film very precisely, where the time frame is very loose, cutting back and forth between before Fonny was imprisoned, to after, whilst making it unclear and unimportant how much time has passed. The film has an easy pace at the beginning, then suddenly we are introduced to the crux of the story (Fonny being falsely accused of rape), where the pace becomes quicker and sharper, and then Jenkins mixes the plot engrossment with more abstract notes of cinematography. It is less kinetic and more large brush strokes crossing across several canvases. The end painting is a lush one where the melancholia is obvious, yet it is the methodical way in which Jenkins situates the scenes of the film that make it powerful. It’s an editing feat by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, where they allow Jenkins to pragmatically flick back and forth through the story, to envision a climatic message that you’ve been lost in for two hours. More directly, the film is that gorgeous balance between wandering artistry and scientific story-telling, similar to how Fonny feels about his own work – he is an artisan, not an artist.

This isn’t a review of the film, but I haven’t even mentioned how alive the performances are, from all the cast. Many have pointed out Regina King’s matriarchal force, but I would look to the two leads, and Kiki Layne as Tish in particular because she is the real soul of the movie. Basically I was in love with this film as soon as it begun, and in awe, but also sadness by the end. It is ultimately a heartbreaking tale of systematic and societal racism crushing down on an innocent and affectionate relationship, and by staying close to a love story, Jenkins is uncovering more wider issues, something that James Baldwin did all the way through his career. He was a key cultural civil rights activist, something that Jenkins claims not to be, but of course he is inadvertently achieving that anyway through mirroring Baldwin’s behaviour. I don’t know why love and romance affects me so much, but Giovanni’s Room got me, as did If Beale Street Could Talk, and as have countless other tales of amorous sentiment.

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People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” – James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.

 

GO AND WATCH THIS FILM. IT IS BETTER THAN ANYTHING YOU WOULD OTHERWISE SEE.

Moonlight – Film Review

This is probably the highest praised film of the last year.  It has been applauded almost across the board by critics and Barry Jenkins has been put on a directorial pedestal.  I came out of the film satisfied, and impressed, but I can’t say that I loved the film.  Part of me is puzzled by the immense praise it has received, and part of me understands.  I am hoping I can explain my problems with the film, whilst noticing its beauty.

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The film nicely splits its narrative into three parts, where it revolves around a single character that is played by these three actors as he ages: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Saunders and Trevante Rhodes.  From there the film intertwines with the people around him and his interactions with them in key parts of his life.  This creates a sense that each piece of drama is important to our lead character and how they evolve as a person.  Amongst the supporting cast are Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris who play pivotal roles in the film. They cast a large shadow over our protagonist and are where to keep your eyes in most scenes.  As far as the plot goes I was intrigued by the moving parts and the overall progression of where it was going.  It felt original in a sense because even though non chronological films are common, this felt more special in its delivery.  There was almost a bigger story going on, and they picked out the most vital for the character.

Unfortunately for me the content of the three sections were often too passive.  I had nothing invested in each moment, nor did I particularly care.  This is not across the board and I was keen to be viewing Ali’s drug dealer Juan, but mostly I was distant from the meaning of each scene.  The films moving parts were interesting yes, but moved too slowly.  In a way the cogs needed to sped up a little bit.  It went from the start of a dialogue to the end with a lot of silence in between and there was nothing accomplished.  I wasn’t bored, because the film is well acted and incredibly shot, but I wasn’t that engaged. You could have opened up a setting and the characters and I would have been able to tell you the outcome.  I wasn’t surprised or gripped by the film and overall felt almost nothing towards it. And I get that the film isn’t necessarily trying to grab me, so the only way I can justify it is that the film is not mine.  The films pacing wasn’t the problem it was its footwork, the steps were too slow.

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Despite all of that I enjoyed the film on some levels.  First of, it flew by, which kind of contradicts what I said but the breaking up of the narrative allows it to jump along.  Just as you are settling in to a time period it moves ahead, which wasn’t a bad thing, I only wish that I cared where it was going.  As well as this on a cinematic level the film is remarkable, with director Jenkins really treating us with his artistic work.  For long periods the film is so unbelievably attractive on the eyes.  It is less precision film making (perhaps like David Fincher) and more art film making, and I loved it.  The colours are thick and each actor is placed perfectly in each scene.  There is kinetic moments (possible not enough) where the camera takes a life on its own and puts a weight behind a dramatic moment.  I was blown away by the opening to the third section where the film had a surge of life out of nowhere where it hadn’t before.  The film is full of gorgeous cinematography and mise-en-scene, making the film timeless on a technical level.  Once again I give all credit to the DP (James Laxton) who has lit this film with such awe inspiring ability.  I would honestly put this film on mute and let it loop on my wall as decoration.

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For the major flaws that I feel for this movie, I still understand it’s joy.  It’s a film with depth and importance; a story and world that is not often seen in cinema.  A selection of themes that are new and complex that I don’t completely understand are at the forefront. They are guided by some wonderful acting in Naomie Harris who is gutting in this role, and Mahershala Ali who is one of the highlights of the run time.  His character made a real impact in the film and sustained my enjoyment when I my interest was drifting way. Overall it’s hard for me to say that the film is overrated because I may be blind to its brilliance.  I get it, I get why people like it, it’s astonishing in some of the fields of film that I love the most, so I guess it is a shame that I was numb to it’s emotional response it was going for.  Thankfully the rest of the world don’t have my brain.