Barry Jenkins’ previous film, Moonlight, was labeled as a “universal story” by many upon its release, meaning that it has wide-ranging appeal and relatability to many people of different backgrounds. In equal measure, it’s been pointed out that while that movie is extremely affecting, it’s a very specific tale about a very specific experience, one that will draw empathy but not necessarily across the board complete understanding. This is not a blemish in any way, just a clarification. What is it that people want by claiming a tale is “universal”? Why not accept that it isn’t exactly that?
Jenkins may be one of, if not absolutely, America’s best modern filmmaker for his ability to express such specificity through the lens of a camera, in perhaps the most universal of mainstream/enjoyable communications. Only three feature films in and Jenkins has already made what I would consider being classics of the medium, now with the James Baldwin novel adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk. The way Jenkins plays with color (from skin to light) isn’t just pretty, but with the glowing purpose of love and appreciation. I wasn’t able to catch this before compiling my best of 2018 list, but it for sure has made an addendum for itself now.
Beale Street makes clear from the opening text, that it’s a story that is all too familiar and all too American, being the treatment of young black males by our justice system. Within and surrounding that is a tale of community and family, of youth and maturity, of life and everything that comes with it. By no means does the film hit us with statistics upon statistics or drawn out fourth wall breaks that admonish society at large; it solely belongs to young lovers Tish and Fonny, and their trials spell out everything that we need to know about this country, no matter the time or setting. Timeless is a nice word for it, but the time has been now for far too many centuries. And it keeps happening.
Fonny has been falsely accused of rape and Tish is pregnant with his child. In a race to get him out of jail before the birth, she recounts their relationship all the while searching for answers and solutions. Beale Street is made up of many amazing movements, from its emotional resonance to the literal placement and motion of the camera. There’s a wonderful forward momentum that keeps us glued intensely, hoping for everything to turn out ok. There’s are plenty of stellar sequences and shots, saying loudly without (and not needing) words the things that are best left to body or cinematic language. It’s hard, as I wish to lay out a few moments in particular, but doing so would certainly spoil the effect.
Of course, words are key here as well. Fonny, Tish, and family make remarks on their observations quite often, turning a simple tabletop conversation into a piercing terror. Turning family meetings into Shakespearean tragedy and triumph. Turning the reality of our times into the poetry that everyone can grasp onto.
Beale Street is a movie of our better angels being put to the test. It’s a film of realism certainly, romantics completely, and love eternally. Optimism? Within the system? More like measured hope. More like the hope that you make for yourself and others. More like putting in more effort than there is potential reward. There is wicked natural chemistry in the cast and crew, in the editing and photography, in the action between all, punctuating everything with precision and definition. There’s not a wasted movement or moment to be found.
I ended the 2016 Presidential Election evening with a screening of Moonlight and began the convening of our new Congressional session in 2019 with Beale Street. I see a thread here of political exhaustion and discomfort being quelled with humanism. With wrongs being fought with rights, though not always winning in satisfying ways. With people just trying to get by. That may be a “universal” notion, and while its story doesn’t belong to everyone, it demands to be seen and felt.
RATING: 5 / 5
If Beale Street Could Talk screens at The Broad in Mid City starting this weekend.
Bill Arceneaux is the lead content writer for Big Easy Magazine. In addition to this, he has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Be sure to check out his film reviews and other articles here.