Over a week ago now, this year’s London Film Festival kicked off properly with Steve McQueen’s steel-toed kick-to-the-gut Widows, the rare Opening Gala that was a genuinely great film, let alone the best thing I’ve seen all year. Since then, I’ve seen many, many films. Most of them have been good, some of them have been great, a pair have come close to the plane that McQueen’s immediate-classic was operating on, and overall (despite my oft-mentioned irritability and fatigue) the quality of the Festival this year has been much higher than it was in 2017.
But even with Sorry to Bother You continuing to rise in my estimations more and more as time went on, I had still yet to see a film that could go toe-to-toe with Widows as the sun began to set on the fortnight. Astute readers will notice my slavish devotion to the past-tense in this paragraph because, on Friday morning, I finally found such a film and, befitting my favourite film of the Fest and the year so far being the highly-anticipated follow-up by an Oscar-winning director, it’s another highly-anticipated follow-up by an Oscar-winning director: Barry Jenkins’ masterful If Beale Street Could Talk.
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel upon which Jenkins’ film is based remains a vital work of American fiction, and Jenkins has wisely chosen to stay as true to the text as he could manage. The lyrical narration, often taken straight from Baldwin’s prose, is intact, as are the early-70s timeframe and pre-gentrification New York City setting. Whilst someone like Spike Lee (whose BlacKkKlansman remains a high watermark of this year in film) chooses to be explicit in painting the parallels between the story set in the recent past and the time in which the film is released, Jenkins doesn’t need to hold a viewer’s hand like that. He knows and they know that Beale Street may be set in the past, but the only real differences in the years since have been gentrification and an increased visibility of the injustices carried out against the Black population of the United States of America by ingrained systemic racism.
Our leads are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends very much in love. He’s 23, she’s 19. They’ve known each other all their lives with the purest devotion to one another. Tish’s family are nothing but loving and supportive to them both, which gives Fonny the mother figure he never got from his own, a hard-line Christian who believes Tish has turned her son to sin. The two are trying to find a loft apartment to share together but are stonewalled at every turn by racist property agents. Fonny wants to be an artist, a sculptor, Tish isn’t quite sure what she wants yet but is fine with that not-knowing. They are, by all metrics, living proper as a White society believes Black folk should, keeping their heads down, following the law to the letter, taking every subliminal or overt reminder that they are supposedly-inherently inferior just because of their skin colour with a smile and utmost politeness. It still won’t be enough, for Fonny will soon be thrown in jail for a rape charge he couldn’t possibly have committed, and Tish plus her family are going to mentally destroy themselves as they embark on the hopeless task of reversing his sentence. For whilst he may not have been guilty of rape, Fonny is still guilty of the greatest crime against American society: being Black.
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Jenkins’ film is a blistering indictment of the institutionalised racism within the very bones of the justice system despite, nay, because of the fact that it stays extremely personal and quiet the entire time. The vast majority of the film is from Tish’s point-of-view which means that we aren’t made privy to things like Fonny’s arrest or time incarcerated beyond her regular visits to him, and that’s because we don’t need to be; the effects of life in prison for a Black man accused of rape are plain as day on the face of Fonny.
Brief detours are made for Fonny and Tish’s fathers (Michael Beach and Colman Domingo respectively) discussing the not-exactly-legal ways they’re being forced to fund the defence case with – the cruel irony of a system that forces Black folks to turn to crime in order to have even a ghost of a chance of proving another Black guy innocent is not lost on the film – a recently-released old friend of Fonny’s (an utterly devastating Bryan Tyree Henry) trying and failing to hide the soul-scarring results of even two years inside when they catch up, and Fonny’s mom (Regina King) journeying to Puerto Rico to find the woman who identified Fonny as her assailant. All of them don’t pull the focus away from Tish, but they also all have a purpose and expand the viewpoint and sense of community that’s crucial to Beale Street’s power.
(Since I brought it up, but this additional explanation doesn’t fit neatly anywhere else in the review, I just want to mention how well Jenkins threads the needle with regards to the rape accusation. Especially post-Kavanaugh, hearings where a whole bunch of despicable White men took turns offering up virtue-signalling, face-saving variations on “well, we can’t dispute that she was raped, but we can’t say for certain who raped her, maybe it was someone else,” this beat could have been a major fundamental bum note, but it works because Jenkins casts his blame on the system and doesn’t negate the trauma it’s inflicted upon the rape victim either. Because of the way our White supremacist racial hierarchy pits and manipulates those below Whites against each other as those in power gleefully abuse that fact time and time again. Severe empathy is the trick, here.)
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Because Beale Street is not a miserable film. It can’t afford to be. To do so would be to succumb to hopelessness and despair which is entirely the point of the American judicial system on young Black men like Fonny, to break them down and keep snatching hope away (whether it be due to disappearing witnesses or cops influencing cases or moving hearings back time and time again) until they can get the plea deal they so desperately want, tarring the victim for life. And whilst Beale Street certainly breaks down as the chances of Fonny being acquitted before his child is born dwindle evermore, it rises from the ashes of that despair with a more realistic idea of hope. One born from the family that tries everything and won’t stop trying everything even when things seem bleakest, one that’s there to support each other through every aggression (like a sexual harassment from a White man whilst shopping) or microaggression (like the different ways people of different races and creeds interact with you when you’re working at a sales position), one that loves. A love that cannot be taken away so easily or so totally, a love that will not give up and will not forget.
Jenkins weaves his way between past and present, hope and despair, love and hatred, and manages to tie them all together in a manner that, whilst maybe not as heart-stopping as the eventual gracenote he ended Moonlight on, moved me to full-on sobbing. His characters are all filled with soul no matter how small the part, embodied by incredible performances all round but especially by Lane and James – both adding a vulnerability and edge to their characters that keeps things from becoming too sentimental, and sparking with a beautiful chemistry that makes their enforced separation gut that much deeper. Nicholas Brittell brings another of his aching scores, there’s not a wasted moment across the entire two hours, and the film also looks wonderful thanks to another returning collaborator of Jenkins’, cinematographer James Laxton.
But I just want to talk about Jenkins’ propensity for profile shots. These also appeared in Moonlight and seem to be a signature for him, but every time he used one in Beale Street I was just stunned. He has this way of filming faces that is incredible to watch, how he strips away the world outside of the character’s face and you can see into their very soul. You can immediately discern discomfort, fear, devastation, acceptance, simmering anger, past trauma, a thousand other facts in the midst of this maelstrom of emotions that are never overplayed or over-literal. It’s the centre-framing, the lighting that illuminates every drop of sweat or a bloodshot eye or the slight curling of a lip, the way in which the entire world melts away for better and worse. He’s not the only director to do this, of course – Jonathan Demme was the first example another critic had when we were talking about this – but there’s just something so direct and absolute and… pure about the way Jenkins uses this technique that never fails to leave me in awe.
Barry Jenkins is one of our best living filmmakers and If Beale Street Could Talk only cements that fact. This is powerful, lyrical, searing filmmaking of raw emotion and incredible talent that doesn’t put a foot wrong and left me a blubbering wreck. If it were coming out this year – which, in the UK, it’s not – it would be in violent competition for my personal Film of 2018. Nice of the BFI to schedule its two absolute masterpieces at opposite ends of my Festival experience.