In 1970’s Harlem, Tish and Fonny, a young couple, bind their souls to each other with love, though the world seems hell-bent on breaking that bond.
It seems a shame that I saw this movie on a plane. I intend to watch it again in a venue where I can appreciate the cinematography and especially the portraiture which Barry Jenkins inserts as a meditative device. There is one good thing about seeing this film on a plane, my phone in airplane mode, though.
I was sitting next to my wife. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself looking over to her to whisper, “I love you.” How many times I reached for her hand, or gave her arm or leg a little squeeze. It is just that sort of a film.
Last year, I know there were people who looked down their noses at “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ first film. Some wondered if it deserved the attention it was getting. Many, who most likely never even saw the film, wrote it off as another Oscar-bait type of move that was trading on its subject matter for “important-film” points with the Academy.
Those of us who saw it, though, knew it was a special film and eagerly awaited Jenkins’ follow up “If Beale Street Could Talk,” knowing that it would show just how adept he is at casting that elusive magic spell that film is capable of in the hands of a worthy director.
Truly, this film did not disappoint. In fact, I think it made me appreciate “Moonlight” even more than I already did. Seeing Jenkins explore the soul bond that Tish ( Kiki Layne, “Native Son”) and Fonny ( Stephan James, “Selma”) highlights even more how amazing “Moonlight” was for focusing on the singular journey that on man went through from a young child to a grown man.
Trying to explain what happens in “If Beale Street Could Talk” is like describing the ocean as a place full of molecules which have two Hydrogen Atoms and one Oxygen atom. Yeah, Fonny and Tish fall in love, get married, and Fonny gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish tries to get him out. Yeah. That all happens, but it isn’t swimming in the ocean.
For that you need to wade into this magical yet grounded exploration of two souls bound together by more convenience or passion. The main characters don’t even feel like separate characters at times for how they are intermingled and complicated, yet their separations are more keenly felt for how harmoniously their minds and hearts seem to find a common ground.
The cinematography, full of magic hour stolen moments and staged portraiture, rhymes with the words of Jamed Baldwin’s novel and re enforces the themes therein. Scenes in this movie are not about communicating ideas and plot moments. They are paintings of Light and Sound meant to communicate the stillness of settled emotions deep within your inner most.
The acting is sublime. On the one had, our hero lovers invite us into their relationship with warmth and whispers which in the hands of a lesser team of performers would seem mumble-core-ish or bored. This film is anything but bored or gimmicky, focusing instead on long takes of deep material being dredged up, not from a screenplay in the green room, but from the being of actors who have become the people they were merely playing.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are outrageous moments of action from some characters that are played with intentional bombasity, screaming out as real emotion and point of view which, though the audience will identify as well over the top and silly, they will equally identify it as real and grounded in our own experiences. For have we not all acted over the top and silly.
There is a profound pain in this film. It’s the pain of what we cannot see, what is left out of the film and out of their lives. Moments of such shocking beauty break through in moments that seem akin to discovering a warm fairy country just below the surface of reality. These moments which Tish and Fonny can call their home and find rest within.
Alas, these moments, while beautiful, seem too few and far between, just as their time together is pulled apart by those around them. Their family, the culture, the police, and other circumstances conspire to have them torn from their place of belonging and thrust cold and alone into strange realities. The pain is not just of an unfortunate thing done, or unlucky turn of events. It is the pain of the beauty that could have been but was shooed away by a larger dismissive hand.
It’s a beautiful pain because it endures what it should not have to. It’s the sort of pain that comes from love because love is not a place that anyone arrives at. It is an action that people take for each other’s sake.
The beauty of love and its sustaining power for those who face insurmountable hardship in their lives is the shining success of this film. The warmth of it is what sticks with me a week later as I write this and I can’t help but believe that it will for you as well.
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