Everybody knows about the splash Barry Jenkins made with Moonlight in 2016, and not only because of the “Envelopegate” snafu at that year’s Oscars. What most people don’t know is that Moonlight was never intended to be Jenkins’ second feature — that honor was meant to go to If Beale Street Could Talk, the writer/director’s adaptation of author James Baldwin’s iconic 1974 novel of the same title. Would that the order were reversed, as Beale Street is a superior film to Moonlight in many regards, even as the prestige of its predecessor threatens to overwhelm the quiet charms of this heart-wrenching statement on systemic, racially motivated injustice. Beale Street is everything that its pedigree would suggest, and it stands just as evenly alongside the most poignant and powerful films of the last decade as the last year.
Baldwin’s narrative itself is deeply moving and suitably depressing given its subject matter, but despite the odds, it proves far from hopeless. Baldwin’s story of Fonny (Stephan James) — a young black man in 1970s Harlem who is wrongfully accused of rape — focuses on the irreparable generational damage his persecution inflicts on his young family. It was certainly never meant to be uplifting. And yet, Jenkins’ adaptation aptly finds the subtle tones not only of remonstrance but also redemption at the core of Baldwin’s plot. The relevance of the film’s message will not be lost on modern audiences, even if that message may well fall on hearts hardened by our contemporary cultural climate.
Were it to exist in a vacuum, Beale Street would certainly have found an enthusiastic following on its own merits. But falling on the heels of a year that included such racially charged films as Sorry To Bother You, Blindspotting and BlacKkKlansman — not to mention the heightened tensions plaguing society off-screen — Beale Street faces a real threat of confronting an exhausted audience inured to the message it so gracefully conveys. The lack of major accolades garnered by the film at early awards season competitions such as the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards may be taken as evidence in support of this theory. If such is, in fact, the case, it would be a genuine shame, because If Beale Street Could Talk is not only an important film but also a very good one.
And Beale Street hasn’t gone home entirely empty-handed, with Regina King taking home well-deserved top honors as Best Supporting Actress from multiple outlets. While King’s performance as the mother of Fonny’s pregnant paramour Tish (outstanding newcomer Kiki Layne) is truly laudable, the rest of this phenomenal ensemble would be unduly marginalized by singling out King. James and Layne carry the film with admirable aplomb, and Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Anjanue Ellis, Sheila Hunt, and the immaculately monikered Ebony Obsidian all deserve similar recognition. It’s self-evident that, for everyone on both sides of the camera, Beale Street was a true labor of love.
Make no mistake, Beale Street is a beautiful, heartbreaking movie. Though it my prove heavy-handed at times, I have no doubt that such was the intent. Jenkins’ direction is every bit as on point as it was in the case of Moonlight, but there’s something deeper going on with his intimate camera here. It should be impossible to deny the power of this film, even as its indictment of our societal mores makes it somewhat difficult to palate. The revolution may well not be televised, but in the hands of Jenkins et. al., it’s been cinematized in a way that we would all be fools to ignore.