Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is an elegant masterpiece

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/19/19 2:35am

Almost two years ago, I wrote an elated review of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning juggernaut “Moonlight,” extolling it as one of the century’s very best films. Looking back on that review, I wince a little at its naïveté and ignorance — an ignorance which I know can only be born out of the immensely privileged position I occupy. Nevertheless, my fundamental feelings about the film have not changed in the intervening time. Indeed, I’ve watched the film at least half-a-dozen times since I first saw it in theaters; it remains a masterful work, a revelation of astonishing filmmaking fused to a perfectly crafted narrative. As we enter the final year of the 2010s, I’m hard-pressed to imagine that there will be a better film released before this decade officially closes out. 

With that in mind, let’s start out with the most obvious, if rather pointless, question: Is Jenkins’ highly-anticipated follow-up, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” as good as “Moonlight”? The short answer is no; but how could it be? Consider, after all, the place of “If Beale Street Could Talk” in Jenkins’ oeuvre. A normal trajectory for an up-and-coming talent might be to follow a deeply personal, semi-autobiographical art film with a prestigious literary adaptation as a bid for Awards recognition. But what happens when that deeply personal art film becomes an unexpected critical darling and wins Best Picture in a controversial moment that will define the Academy Awards for a generation? What do you do next to expand your horizons as an artist and a filmmaker? Jenkins’ solution seems to be giving the prestigious literary adaptation a shot anyway. To this end, he has transformed James Baldwin’s acclaimed 1974 novel into a haunting piece of visual poetry. Yet, perhaps partially thanks to the success of “Moonlight,” Jenkins appears far less beholden to appeasing the upper echelons of American film culture than he might otherwise. The story of “If Beale Street Could Talk” isn’t really Jenkins’ in the same way as the story of “Moonlight” was. Yes, “Moonlight” was adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, but because the play had never been produced and because Jenkins infused the screenplay with so much of his own life, it ultimately became his story as much as it was McCraney’s. But “If Beale Street Could Talk” was a respected book long before it became a film. Thus, one might expect that Jenkins would opt for the distanced, somewhat impersonal approach that accompanies so many literary adaptations. Instead, he has made a film that feels no less personal than “Moonlight,” marked in every frame by his signature as a cinematic artist.

The film depicts the blossoming romance of Tish and Fonny, who have grown up as best friends living in Harlem. Shortly after they move in together, Fonny is arrested by a vindictive white police officer and is falsely accused of raping Victoria Rogers, a Puerto Rican immigrant. Tish, her family and Fonny’s family must all work together to prove Fonny’s innocence, yet their task proves to be Sisyphean as they fight against a legal system that rests on a bedrock of deep-seated racism. 

On a purely superficial level, the plot reminds me of Reginald Hudlin’s excellent 2017 film “Marshall,” which documents Thurgood Marshall’s involvement in a similar case in which a black man was falsely accused of raping a woman. Both films handle such a delicate subject tactfully; both manage to address the systemic racism that crushes the lives of people like Fonny even to this day, while simultaneously openly acknowledging that the narratives of rape victims in these scenarios should never be dismissed. Where the films differ is in approach. “Marshall” is a taught courtroom drama that relies heavily on suspense and melodrama. By contrast, Jenkins’ approach is always lyrical and deeply humanistic. 

 Irvin Kershner, the director of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” once commented, “There’s nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face.” Barry Jenkins’ cinema is nothing if not a cinema about the landscape of human faces. Few directors spend so much time lingering on the minutiae of facial expressions, ensuring that every tiny muscle movement gets forever preserved on film. I would honestly love to read one of Jenkins’ screenplays to see whether it is decidedly sparse or whether he plans out all of his exquisite moments of silence during the writing stage. Because in terms of dialogue, there’s not much there. Certainly, Jenkins is more than an adept dialogue writer, but he never uses it as a crutch to tell his story. Rather, his stories occur on the landscape of not only human faces, but of human bodies, a reminder that the toll on the lives of his protagonists is not just psychological but also physical. 

It helps that Jenkins has an intuitive knack for casting. You know you’re in good hands when you have such difficulty deciding who gave the film’s best performance. It might be Regina King as Tish’s fiercely protective mother. It might be Colman Domingo as her complex but ultimately deeply loving father. It might be Stephan James, who brings such depth to his proportionally limited screen time as Fonny. But it’s probably KiKi Layne, who imbues Tish with such distinct integrity and resilience. And that’s all without mentioning the phenomenal supporting players who fill the corners of this film, like Michael Beach, Teyonah Parris, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal and, yes, even Dave Franco (clearly the most underrated of the Franco brothers).

In short, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is an immensely ambitious film, and if it doesn’t always live up to the monumental achievement that is “Moonlight,” it’s not for lack of trying. Put simply, “Moonlight” is one of those rare films that feels utterly cohesive and fully formed from the second it starts. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” on the other hand, develops at its own pace, confidently building to its climax while still never quite eclipsing the rare perfection of “Moonlight.” It tries admirably to tackle so many deeply relevant themes and issues, and not everything pays off in a completely satisfactory way. But it doesn’t really matter. Films that are this beautiful, this ambitious, this admirable and this challenging are rare and ought to be cherished. As a film on its own terms, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is one of 2018’s finest works; as a complement to “Moonlight” in the context of Jenkins’ overall body of work, it is yet another beautiful exploration of cinema’s power for endless empathy. 

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