Barry Jenkins’ Directorial coming out party Moonlight (pun intended) was the little film that could. It ended up beating out Award Season darling La La Land for the Academy Awards climactic achievement in one of the most memorable moments from the ceremony in decades. The follow-up was never going to generate the same zeal and acclaim that Jenkins’ blue-tinged melancholy did just two short years ago. But expectations were still high, even from someone like myself who was not as high on Moonlight as everyone else. His presentation in that film was unparalleled from a directorial standpoint. The color palette, framing and general cinematography were masterful, and these trends continue in his latest feature If Beale Street Could Talk, cementing Jenkins as one of film’s directing and novel-adapting powerhouses.
The film centers around the characters of Fonny (Alonzo) and Tish, played by Stephan James and Kiki Layne, respectively. Tish is struggling to find her place as Fonny deals with a wrongful rape conviction and an endlessly-related trial. Simple story, which no doubt lessens its impact narratively when compared to a piece like Moonlight, but it still forces the audience to think just how different the world really is today than when the civil rights movement was large in history’s rear-view mirror. One aspect of this story which sets it apart from its clichéd counterparts is the structure. We cut back and forth between the past, when Alonzo and Tish were discovering their love, and the present, where they communicate through glass and plastic telephones under the watchful eye of a security guard. In less skilled hands, this would be confusing, but Jenkins’ direction in telling the story makes it readily apparent whenever time is skipped forward or back.
The writing is also incredibly satisfying at times, although much of the time, especially in the film’s second and third acts, it can be repetitive. Many small scenes are shown more than once, and it just feels like wasted time in a film where some story points could have been expounded upon. One such conflict is the one which happens between the families of Tish and Fonny. The first act features my favorite scene in the film, and that is where this conflict is introduced. Afterwards, though, the family members of Fonny which conflict with Tish’s household are never seen again, and this was a disappointment. I will not divulge plot details any further, because there is not much in this film to be spoiled. That is perhaps my biggest issue with If Beale Street Could Talk, that there are no revelations like those in Moonlight. Narratively, it is much quieter than Jenkins’ Best Picture winner, and perhaps that is why it has become a bit of a victim of expectations in my eyes. Nevertheless, the story is poignant, memorable, and very much of the times that we live in today, and much more subtly than most other films which try to handle race relations in today’s America.