‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ : Barry Jenkins refuses to be a one hit wonder

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Directed by Barry Jenkins

I consider “Moonlight” one of the greatest films of this decade. Barry Jenkins framed his coming-of-age story within the context of the African American community, with an all-black cast. For his highly anticipated follow-up, Jenkins chose to adapt the brilliant James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It’s an unapologetic black love story, but it’s set in a broader context of oppressive American society during the Civil Right Era. Baldwin (and Jenkins, in his adaptation) refused to let that heavy context weigh down the “only two people in the world” sort of romance shared by the two protagonists, Trish (KiKi Layne) and Fonnie (Stephan James). Even when Fonnie is accused of rape and sent to prison, or when Trish discovers she’s pregnant, the story’s use of flashbacks lets us always remember that love is bigger than all else.

I told myself I wouldn’t compare “If Beale Street Could Talk” to “Moonlight” if it was only to say “Moonlight” was better. That would’ve been too easy. It wouldn’t have been fair to ask any movie to live up to that masterpiece. But Jenkins’s films have several things in common besides Jenkins’s filmmaking crew (many of whom received Oscar nominations for “Moonlight”), so I think I’m okay. In both films, Jenkins gives the love scenes time to articulate the passion between the young lovers, letting them play out with only background noise and maybe the soft sounds of string instruments. He lets them simmer. In “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Layne and James take full advantage, sharing a genuine chemistry that looks and feels like real love. I’m not about to ‘ship the actors because I’m not a 14-year-old girl, but damn if I couldn’t picture it. “If Beale Street Could Talk” takes place sometimes without either of the two leads present, though. As Trish and Fonnie’s parents try to help Fonnie’s case, sometimes they’re acting without their children present. But the film never loses steam because the two leads aren’t on screen. That’s because, as Trish’s parents, Reginia King and Colman Domingo hold their own unsurprisingly well. If you’ve ever seen “Fear the Walking Dead,” you know Colman’s charisma balances out his sometimes-rough edges very well. And the recent Emmy winner King deserves the praise her performance is receiving, though it certainly doesn’t overshadow the leads.

Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton deserves a lot of credit, too. The import of each expression is given ample time to soak into the eyes of viewers. With the camera in the faces of the actors, it’d be difficult to prevent all those emotions from affecting you. Maybe this time around, an Oscar nomination will lead to a win. Likewise, Nicholas Britell deserves something for his lovely score. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is an emotional powerhouse that defies racial lines and feels just as real decades after it is set. Barry Jenkins proves that “Moonlight” wasn’t a one-off. This guy is the real deal.

8.5/10

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