Barry Jenkins’ latest film is dedicated to “Jimmy”, aka James Baldwin, author of the challenging, complex and deeply moving novel If Beale Street Could Talk. The poetic work talked of particular injustices, where cycles of systemic unfairness and disproportionality continue to affect marginalized communities. Yet the protagonists are not without flaws, each a richly drawn portrayal of individuals who do not fall nicely into specific categories, be they moral or legal. Yet above all, there’s a sense of family that forms a deeply held bond, one that transcends the challenges of the moment and deeply entwines all involved.
It’s this refusal of Baldwin’s writing to either vindicate or excoriate his characters that’s the most challenging to translate to the big screen, and it’s here that Jenkin’s gifts come to the fore. This is a film far more challenging in some ways than his Best Picture winner Moonlight as there’s a more overt political underpinning here, with characters behaving in downright appalling fashion at one moment and exhibiting supreme humanity the next. This isn’t to take anything away from the previous film, save to say there are fewer hooks in Beale for general audiences to hold onto as allegiances sway and easy answers are eschewed.
Ostensibly this is a story of love – the love between a young man (Stephan James) and a young woman (Kiki Layne), between a mother and her child, that of fathers bending the rules to better those around them, or sisters standing up and refusing to see heads bowed in shame. At the same time it’s the story that bit by bit prods at notions of purity, where a petty thief can still be unjustly punished for a different crime and have not fall into some sort of retributional equivalency. Each facet gets called into question, where domestic violence is understood, where kicking a man on the sidewalk is contextulized, or when we feel both aghast and sympathetic to a demanding mother who pushed too far.
The community is equally ambivalent, with only an errant white cop feeling dimensionless. The way that Jenkins captures Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) makes him particularly unnerving, even if all we really see from him is disdain rather that witness overt violence. He represents a system that on the one hand fails to recognize the falsity of the accusation, but equally one where the violence occurs in the first place from a member of that same marginalized community. It’s these shifting trajectories that infuses the film with so much impact, one that throughout consistently calls into question any simplification all while making manifest a very direct, nearly polemical point about the insidious nature of these injustices.
No character more powerfully exhibits these shifting elements than Regina King’s. Her maternal strength is formidable, yet still limited by the forces she’s confronting. The power and fragility she brings to the screen astonishes. James and Layne are shot in particularly luminous ways by Jenkins’ long-time collaborator James Laxton, and it’s hard not to be seduced alongside their warm embrace. The rest of the ensemble do an exemplary job of making real the heightened dialogue, particularly during a bravura sequence where the families meet to announce big news. It’s a play unto itself, yet feels more documentary than staged as its executed.
The film will have its detractors, from those unwilling to allow for such nuanced characters or others who inevitably recoil from such a stark condemnation of fundamental tenets of American society. Both Baldwin and Jenkins refuse easy answers, each having a powerful and specific point of view but never shying away from the morass in which such convictions must be drawn from. It’s this that sets the film apart, one that’s brave not only in terms of its messaging but in terms of allowing the characters to be truly realized, faults fully intact, and still find the cause of justice one that transcends any infidelities or altercations.
If Beale Street Could Talk will be a hard film for some to embrace, but for those open to the literary conceit, the beautifully drawn characters and sophisticated telling that Jenkins and his collaborators managed to assemble, it will surely be a film that will affect you deeply both emotionally and intellectually. This is great cinema, and it proves unequivocally that Jenkins is one of the great filmmakers of his generation.