Thursday, July 18, 2024

Making The Case For “If Beale Street Could Talk”

By Josh Williams 

I am a firm believer that the medium of film has the ability to change an audience’s beliefs. Whether it be a political belief, a religious belief, or even influencing someone to become vegetarian. Simply through placing images on a screen at twenty-four frames a second, film can change a person’s life. The language of splicing together images holds more power than we realize. Certain filmmakers have the ability to capture this magic throughout their entire career and these filmmakers are endlessly on a quest to show the world this magic through the looking glass that is a camera lens. Barry Jenkins, is a director who I think is constantly searching for this magic and with each film he provides us, he re-discovers this bliss in a new and meaningful way. With his first feature, “Medicine For Melancholy”, his Best-Picture winning “Moonlight,” and now his critically adored “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Jenkins has an eye for romance. Not just with his characters but with the act of filmmaking itself. Barry Jenkins isn’t just a director, he’s a magician. A magician who has the ability to make us wonder and feel.

​”If Beale Street Could Talk” is Jenkins’ follow up to the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight” and it is clear that his only trajectory as a director, is up and forward. Dripping with passion, warmth, beauty, and of course romance, the adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name is a piece of pure bliss. It’s a film that changed one of my beliefs, which is that true love does indeed exist.

True love is such a cheesy and cliche topic to base a film around but for some reason, I saw Jenkins’ film in a completely different light. The contrast of the best of times with the worst of times with his two lead characters Tish Rivers, played by KiKi Layne and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, played by Stephan James. The romance that these two characters share feels real, so real that it felt like I was watching an incredibly stylized and dramatized documentary. For me, these two people are in love and are destined to spend the rest of their lives together. “Are you ready?” “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my entire life.” I’m not sure if I was ready for what Barry Jenkins was about to deliver us post “Moonlight” but this was exactly what I, and the world, needed.

Believe me, I’m not alone in any of these feelings either. Countless critics believe that this is one of the best films of 2018. But if the support is there from critics and Jenkins is clearly adored by the voting body of the Academy due to his success with “Moonlight,” this leaves me with one question…Where are the nominations for it throughout this awards season? There are a couple of aspects to the film that a majority of the industry seems to agree on: Regina King in Best Supporting Actress has gotten quite the push (especially considering her win at the Golden Globes this past Sunday), and Nicholas Britell’s haunting and illustrious score. But before we address the nomination debacle I want to discuss what Jenkins does as a filmmaker to make his third feature film emit this level of passion and romance.

If Beale Street Could Talk

*Warning, there are some spoilers ahead if you have not seen the film*

If Beale Street Could Talk” is a film that discusses several themes. One is the dynamic of Tish and Fonny having a child despite not being married. Tish’s family is incredibly supportive of the decision, but Fonny’s mother who is a die-hard Catholic woman is outraged and against this. There is the dynamic of the two families trying to get money together so that Fonny’s innocence can be proven, even if it means that getting the money will not be done responsibly. Then there is the dynamic of the racist actions taken by the police officers involved with Fonny. Instead of actually trying to launch an investigation into who was responsible for the rape of Victoria Rogers, a white officer that Fonny has encountered before claims to have seen him around the scene of the crime when the crime took place. The police then told Victoria to make sure she chooses Fonny out of the line up when they show her said line up. There are many different moving pieces within Jenkins’ film, each touching upon a different social issue of what it means to be black in America but the core theme and aspect of the project is the universal feeling of true love that transcends race, culture and knows no boundaries.

There are two main elements of the film that make the romance feel as real as it does. While the performances elevate the passion of the film, I think what truly brings “If Beale Street Could Talk” to the pedestal that it sits on is the cinematography and the editing. Both are critical when crafting any film of any genre but I think when it comes to creating a romance, these elements should be handled with care and treated almost like lovers. For example, the scene where Fonny re-unites with his old friend Daniel Carty, played by Brian Tyree Henry, and Carty tells Fonny about his time in prison, notice that nothing particularly fancy is being done. The two just sit at the table while the camera pans back and forth between the two of them talking. Jenkins’ patience to allow this moment to play in full adds to the tension of what has already been set up in the film. We know Fonny is in prison and while Carty tells us about how the guards act like wild dogs towards African American inmates, this moment becomes substantial. We have a connection with Fonny and we want him to make it out of prison so he can father his child, so by gaining this information we begin to worry for him. This moment could easily have been approached with an unbroken still shot or could have been filmed with the typical standard coverage you’d see in a dialogue scene. But this scene is told slowly, more gracefully, so that we can feel the impact of Carty’s words.

​The editing rarely if ever, refuses to change pace. Even during the argument scene between Tish and Fonny’s mother, the editing remains at the exact same pace as we see during the lovemaking scene between Tish and Fonny. The takes are longer than average, the angles are a bit different, and Jenkins and his editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders allow this moment to play in full. They trust the audience to listen and understand the dialogue that is being spoken so that we feel the impact as it travels into our minds and hearts. This minimalist approach to cinematography and editing is what makes the film feel so impactful on an internal level that one can barely describe. The camera is never moving without motivation. It is following our characters, their words, and their actions. It brings us one level deeper after another so that this emotional journey we go on will resonate a profound way.

If Beale Street Could Talk” has missed some key nominations on the road to the Oscar nominations, which has become more than frustrating as the days go on. Jenkins missed a DGA nomination on Tuesday while also missing Best Director nominations at the Critics Choice and the Golden Globes. The film missed a PGA nomination, it did not receive a single SAG nomination for any of its stars or ensemble. It has not received an ACE, ASC, ADG or CDG nomination. And now the film was almost completely shut out from BAFTA nominations aside from receiving a Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. The snubs for this film just seem to be coming in left and right. All of these precursor nominations are typically ones that point to a Best Picture nomination and unfortunately, it seems like “If Beale Street Could Talk” might be heading down a path where they may miss that nomination too, despite being an apparent frontrunner at one point. The film has performed decently through random critics groups but just cannot seem to gain momentum with any of the industry awards…the ones who actually vote on the Oscars. Some have blamed it on Annapurna changing the release date and halting the film’s momentum after its TIFF & NYFF showings where it was met with rapturous praise. Some have said that the screeners have not gone out to enough members in time for voting. With the film expanding in theaters and Oscar ballots currently in hand, these are some nominations that I believe “If Beale Street Could Talk” deserves to receive from The Academy. 

If Beale Street Could Talk

Regina King for Best Supporting Actress

Going into the film I remember being pretty nervous I wasn’t going to be a fan of Regina King’s much hyped about performance. Thankfully, I turned out to be wrong and when I found myself deliberating over my favorite aspects of the film the first question that came into my head was, “How could Regina King not be considered the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress?” Critics have certainly gone to bat for her and she just won the Golden Globe Award. However, with snubs from SAG & BAFTA (Two voting bodies which have a crossover with the Academy’s membership), she is no longer considered the frontrunner. King is the emotional foundation for the film. She is always there when her daughter needs her and is constantly at the ready to help whenever it is deemed necessary. King is stunning in her role even if she doesn’t have a ton of screen time. With decades in the industry and respected in both the television and film sectors, there should be no reason why we are not giving her the Oscar statue already.

Brian Tyree Henry for Best Supporting Actor

This is a nomination that I’ve seen happen a few times with some critics groups but definitely has gone nowhere near the main players. Brian Tyree Henry has had a hell of a year and it culminates with his performance in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Reminding us of other one scene wonders such as Beatrice Straight in “Network,” his scene is arguably the best in the film. Mixing a bit of the enthusiasm he brings to the table with his role as Paper Boy in “Atlanta” and some vulnerability that we’ve yet to see from the actor before is a hauntingly outstanding bit of acting that left me with my jaw dropped on the floor. Henry is proving that his range is quite massive and he is ready for bigger and more challenging roles.

KiKi Layne for Best Actress

Want to talk about a profound performance that’s received absolutely zero love? KiKi Layne gives one of the best leading performances I’ve seen this year without a doubt. She is striking and commands that you never take your eyes off of her when she’s on screen for fear that you may miss the slightest shift in her eyes, mouth, or body language. She is fierce, determined, and downright brilliant in her role. She has been absolutely shafted this awards season and that is a major disappointment if you ask me.

Nicholas Britell for Best Original Score

While this is one that seems to have been echoed for quite a while this season, this was another thing I was listening extra carefully for during my experience of watching “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Everyone seemed to be praising Britell and I was ready to find out why. Let me tell you that the original score is exquisite and just as good as his Academy Award-nominated work on “Moonlight.” The way it naturally flows between scenes or how the music will cut off and then make a roaring re-entry into a scene, has the ability to bring a tear to your eye. It is easily one of the best-crafted pieces of music this year.

​Barry Jenkins for Best Adapted Screenplay

It is no easy task to adapt a novel into a film, especially a James Baldwin novel. Baldwin’s novels are so detailed heavy that it would be daunting to attempt and translate that to the screen. But for the magician that is Barry Jenkins, he pulls it off flawlessly. Not only are their certain lines of dialogue that pack some intense zingers and gut punches but the moments of silence I think are what make the screenplay a little bit different from most. At moments when characters look into each other’s eyes and say absolutely nothing but the music is soaring and our hearts along with it, it’s clear that Jenkins wanted to keep these moments from the novel. Moments that would normally be narrated by the author are instead narrated by the actors’ eyes and our own minds as we project our own emotions onto Baldwin’s characters, all under the watchful eye of Barry Jenkins.

Barry Jenkins for Best Director

Jenkins has clearly shown talent in his decade long career and is without a doubt one of the most exciting directors behind a camera right now. But there is something about his latest effort that left me completely astonished, even after his brilliant and spellbinding work in “Moonlight.” His latest directorial effort took my breath away and left me in a constant time loop of reminiscing on both the small and larger moments. It has been all I’ve been able to think about for a few days now and that is all owed to Barry Jenkins. His patience, his passion, his knowledge, his love, is all clearly pouring out of that screen and dripping its way into hearts and our souls. 

If Beale Street Could Talk for Best Picture

If Beale Street Could Talk” is without a doubt one of the best films to be released this year. Expectations were sky high after “Moonlight” but Barry Jenkins delivered a masterful film that reminded us of the power of love and support, in the face of overwhelming odds. It creates such a warm and inviting atmosphere, allowing you to explore so many different perspectives of the characters’ lives and just live with them for two hours. It is a once in a lifetime cinematic experience and deserves much more praise than it is currently receiving. It deserves to be nominated in all of the categories I mentioned above and even some others I have not mentioned including cinematography, production design, costumes but if you take all of those elements together, they equal up to the big one, Best Picture. The path that is being paved makes it look like it may not receive a Best Picture nomination, but we can all hope and wish that in such dour and distressing times, that the Academy will remember what it feels like to love and live again.​

You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @josh_williams09

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Josh Parham
Josh Parham
I love movies so much I evidently hate them. Wants to run a production company.

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