If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

by The Movie Diorama

If Beale Street Could Talk gently explores racial discrimination and eternal love through expressionistic drama. Nuance. It’s an approach that very few directors decide to take. The ability to fabricate raw emotions through minimal effort, whether that be literary or theatrically, producing a subdued aura that surrounds the characters.

Jenkins’ follow-up to the masterpiece that is ‘Moonlight’ is one that is riddled with expectations. A question of delivering such towering content consecutively. Whilst not in the same league, Beale Street has its own mesmerising allure that conveys the trust of love through the most earnest of facial expressions, securing the sentiment that they are truly worth a thousand words. A young woman and her endearing family seek to clear the name of her falsely accused lover, whom of which has been charged with sexual assault.

The love story of Tish and Fonny, two lovebirds so helplessly infatuated with each other that the environment encapsulating them stops in motion. Jenkins, along with Laxton’s absolute gorgeous cinematography, paints a solemn illustration. The colour palette, lukewarm lighting and non-linear narrative structure allows Jenkins to maintain creative freedom whilst staying true to the source material. His expressionistic aesthetic from previous directorial efforts is maintained fully by consistently focusing all literary intent on the characters, against the backdrop of a predominantly racist society.

Frequently, he will cut a conversation, only to allow James and Layne to stare into each other’s soul, or in this the camera. Their piercing stares, glistening eyes. A burst of mesmerisation that emanates more true love than any adjective could define.

The passion strengthening the tainted history of the black community that was wrongly discriminated, both carrying absurds amount of narrative heft without substantial amounts of dialogue. Any and all conversational scenes emitted a sense of naturalism to them. This isn’t a romantic puff piece resorting to melodrama in an attempt to force audiences to weep. This is real. Pure realism depicted by visual poetry that resonates within us all.

Bolstered by, again, nuanced performances that allow these characters to simmer. There are no outbursts of rage, a common trait found in award calibre films to showcase overacting. There aren’t even any moments of eternal sadness, allowing performers to sob their way to awards. It’s completely subdued. Layne utilises the silence of her character to nullify audiences. Vulnerable yet commanding. James remains admirable and defiant throughout, further cementing the love of their characters.

A few cameos here and there which were pleasant surprises, if occasionally wobbly. However, the beautiful shining star has to be King as the supportive mother. Never mind the scene where she obliterates Fonny’s family with one line. The moment, that one precise minute where she won the award, was when she flies to Puerto Rico. The way she crumbles to the floor crying her eyes out after her act of desperation, acknowledging the fact she has no more chances, was sensational. Absolutely incredible.

The nuanced approach can be too gentle for its own good, not entirely letting all the emotions boil over. It remains effective throughout, but there are moments when you want to feel more. You want to cry. You want to collapse onto the floor with them. However the subdued aesthetic prevents you from doing so, occasionally. There’s also a dominant jarring tonal shift between the first and second act, where the accusation is explained, that seemed inapposite. A few criticisms that prevent this from being the ultimate visual poem, but Britell’s authentic score entranced me during these uncertain moments. Should’ve won the Academy Award (especially as Hurwitz wasn’t even nominated), just sayin’.

Beale Street is an exercise in modern expressionism. It yearns to mesmerise through its ornate visual aesthetic that enables an authentic level of romanticism to be conveyed against a historical movement in black culture. Suppressed repression presented masterfully by a director at the height of his power. Sensational viewing, and incredibly overlooked.