Tuesday 12 February 2019

Pride and prejudices: "If Beale Street Could Talk"

It has become apparent, three films into what looks set to be a major career, that the cinema of Barry Jenkins is a cinema of moments: fleeting, lingering, transitional, unforgettable. If Beale Street Could Talk, the James Baldwin adaptation Jenkins now offers up as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight, begins with one such moment: two kids walking hand-in-hand down some nondescript Harlem backstreet in the late-afternoon sunlight. In and of itself, it's a nothing - granted, a sweet one, but just about the lowest-key opening a filmmaker could alight upon. It will gain greater significance over the course of subsequent scenes, however, as a rare moment of peace and togetherness, a calm before a coming storm. One of the kids, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), is about to be framed by a racist cop and buried deep inside the American prison system on a wholly unfounded rape charge; his sweetheart Tish (KiKi Layne) will have to break the news to him, and to the couple's families, that as a 19-year-old, she is expecting his child. The film that follows moves rhythmically back and forward: back to the point the couple first fell in love, forward to Tish's desperate attempts to prove her babydaddy's innocence, each moment giving the next its own momentum and emotional gravity. I had the image of the ball bearings on an executive desk toy in my head several scenes before one physically showed up on screen; Jenkins has a very specific idea of the effects he's aiming for, and the fact he gets us so close to them may encourage you to forgive any lapses into overemphasis.

Baldwin's most radical conceit was to describe a stable, loving African-American family unit, not altogether unblighted by the poverty of their early 1970s moment, but basically doing all right - or all right were it not for the predicament we find them in. (The author rightly sensed it's somehow all the more shocking when bad things happen to those living comparatively comfortable lives.) The material allows Jenkins to paint an even bigger picture than his small yet emotionally expansive Best Picture: a wide-ranging ensemble captures the tensions and energies running through this neighbourhood at this time. He has no qualms corralling his characters in the same spot for longer-than-average scenes or moments: an exceptionally marshalled and performed early get together hints, establishes and then nails down that her lover is all but the only member of Fonny's family that Tish sees eye to eye with. By contrast, our heroine has the absolute support of her blithe, somewhat outnumbered father (Colman Domingo, in Baldwin's Mr. Bennet role), fierce sister (Teyonah Parris, heroine of Spike Lee's Chi-Raq) and a loving mother (Regina King) prepared to go to the ends of the earth (or at least Puerto Rico) for her charge. That's another undiscussed signifier of this family's relative mobility - yet Baldwin spotted, and Jenkins confirms, that even with the protection of loving guardians, the tide can turn quickly against young African-Americans. (A crucial exchange of dialogue, shared between sisters: "Some shit." "And we in it now.") Jenkins permits Tish and Fonny moments of grace and beauty - of dancing by night, and lovemaking in Fonny's cramped sculptor's loft - yet they are just moments, and they have to end. Time and again, we're returned to the sight of two youngsters bearing the weight of an unsparing world on their shoulders.

Is this why Jenkins connected with the material so? Moonlight benefitted from its status as a small, off-the-radar indie, creeping into the limelight from the movie margins; its Oscar success gave its maker carte blanche to try and convert one of the late 20th century's most revered novels into a lasting work of cinema people would be lining up to see, which may explain why the new film feels a touch self-conscious. Beale Street begins with Baldwin's explanation of his own title, and succumbs to some very deliberate pacing as its writer-director weighs his words and moments exactly, striving to find the perfect place for every last one of them within this new structure. To a degree, everything fits: even an apparently free-floating chat between Fonny and an ex-con pal (Brian Tyree Henry) serves to outline the horrors of prison life, never shown explicitly within the film, but visible in passing in the scars on the incarcerated Fonny's face. Yet the spontaneous magic Moonlight conjured out of almost nothing looks to have receded here, replaced by a conspicuous effort to do full justice to a notable source. You think Beale Street is going to loosen up with the Puerto Rico episode - it starts as a spy movie, with a woman disguising herself in a mirror - but even this diversion ends in tears and howls; there's no let up in the intensity, and no easy way out of the dead ends the characters find themselves in, which was presumably Baldwin's point. Except - strangely - Jenkins finds some wriggle room come the conclusion, shifting the book's emphases in such a way as to suggest a more romantic sensibility than Baldwin, and an awareness of that audience that may need slivers of hope to cling to. We can appreciate (and be moved by) that effort: the ravishing close-ups, the swirling Nicholas Britell score, with its arpeggios to tumble for. Yet Jenkins can't quite let himself swoon as once he did, alert to both the seriousness of his task and the fact there are now many more people watching him: the moments he sculpts remain crystalline and dazzling, but the connecting tissue feels knotted and terse. He's put his back into this one - there's been no resting on Moonlight's laurels whatsoever - but the results form a notable work of cinema that, via its every unrelaxed and stiffly formal frame, also communicates multitudes about the burden of representation, what it takes to make black lives and lines matter.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now playing in selected cinemas; it opens nationwide this Thursday (the 14th).

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