If Beale Street Could Talk

January 11, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Directed by: Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”)
Written by: Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”)

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of late African-American novelist James Baldwin, the socially conscious writer broke barriers throughout his career with stories about a host of complex and personal issues, including racism, religion and homosexuality. In 2016, the documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was adapted from one of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts, earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination and featured actor Samuel L. Jackson narrating Baldwin’s own ideas about American history and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The beauty of Baldwin’s writing, once again, resonates in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a drama by filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who won an Oscar for screenwriting and a nomination for directing the critically acclaimed 2016 film “Moonlight.” In the hands of Jenkins, Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name is adapted into an observant and touching story of young, requited love, but also one that shoots straight to the heart of how systemic racism has shattered black and brown lives for generations.

Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, “Beale Street” follows Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), a black couple whose childhood friendship has blossomed over the years into true love. Their romance, however, is put on hold when Fonny is wrongly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison, where his fate hangs on the testimony of one racist cop (Ed Skrien) and a woman (Emily Rios) choosing the easiest route for justice. While locked up, Fonny learns that Tish is going to have his baby — a piece of news that makes Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) even more desperate to prove Fonny’s innocence before he fades into the prison system.

At times, “Beale Street” feels like we’re watching a stage production, with Jenkins’ approach to crafting conversations between characters allowing ample time for each line of dialogue to have its moment. But Jenkins always finds his way back to his cinematic roots. His distinctive style and framing are fitting for a film like “Beale Street,” where looking into the faces on screen is just as important as hearing the words they’re speaking.

Through its nonlinear storytelling, “Beale Street” controls its pacing and draws it out effectively. Like “Moonlight,” its slow-burning narrative pairs well with the deep-seated emotion Jenkins is hoping to tap into. In “Beale Street,” he has found the epitome of love as a tool for survival and the sacrifices a family will make to protect their own. Reteaming with “Moonlight” Oscar nominees Nicholas Britell and James Laxton for a stunning original score and pristine cinematography, Jenkins has transported audiences to a place where the only cure for hopelessness is fighting through the pain.

Moonlight

November 11, 2016 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
Directed by: Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”)
Written by: Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”)

Hollywood is only less than a year removed from the industry’s controversial #OscarsSoWhite debate. Now that we’re actually in Oscar season again, it’ll be interesting to see if this year’s buzz-worthy bait will include anything that could constitute a “black film” and how those projects will go over with audiences and critics alike.

The race to the top starts with “Moonlight” (“The Birth of a Nation” was a pretender), a beautifully-made drama that spans the life of one character from childhood to adulthood in a moving and heartbreaking way.

Following the life Chiron (played by three different actors in three chapters: Alex Hibbert as a kid, Ashton Sanders as a teenager and Trevante Rhodes as an adult), a gay African American, the film’s main messages of sexual identity, self-discovery and loneliness start strong and never let up as we watch the character battle himself and others over who he is and what he wants to make of his life.

The film starts with Chiron, nicknamed “Little,” as a quiet kid getting picked on by other boys in his neighborhood because of his small stature and pure nature. Little’s drug-addicted mother Paula (a wonderful Naomie Harris), is an emotional wreck and irresponsible for her child. When good-hearted local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe) step in to play parental roles in Little’s life, the boy find some stability although not much.

As we watch Little grow into a teenager and face more harsh treatment from his mother and peers, his strength begins to show when he realizes he is attracted to one of his male friends at school. The recognition during these scenes in the film are genuine, which makes them all the more damaging when Chiron’s becomes devastated by an incident that puts him on a path he never thought he would take.

Adapted from Tarell McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the direction and script of “Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) is an illuminating way to tell a story. Like 2014’s “Boyhood,” “Moonlight” gives audiences an opportunity to see this drama unfold on a broad scope and become invested in the main character and the issues he is experiencing. In “Moonlight,” however, the stake are at another level, which builds tension throughout the film in some surreal ways.

All three actors who portray Chiron bring a unique innocence to the character that is palpable. With Jenkins leading them all through this lyrical narrative, and some incredible cinematography by James Laxton (“Camp X-Ray”), “Moonlight” breaks away from most coming-of-age molds and makes itself distinctly compassionate and boundless—just like Chiron.