If Beale Street Could Talk (15A)
Anyone who saw Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight would have been impressed by the quiet charm Trevante Rhodes brought to the role of the character called Chiron. (As you may remember, three actors played him in various stages of his life).
Stephan James reminded me a lot of him as Alonzo in Jenkins’ latest opus. He scripted it from a James Baldwin novel set in Harlem in the 1970s. Jenkins’ direction is also very reminiscent of the earlier film, playing itself out like a symphony in a series of leisurely vignettes that in a lesser director’s hands might have clashed with the incendiary nature of the plot.
This is really quite slim. Alonzo, nicknamed Fonny, has impregnated his childhood sweetheart Tish (Kiki Layne). This foments tensions between the two families. Jenkins conveys the bitterness of this to us in a powerful early scene. As the couple await the birth of their baby, Fonny is arrested on a trumped-up charge of rape spearheaded by a racist policeman.
The remainder of the film – intercut with flashbacks – concerns the efforts of the two sets of parents to track down the raped woman. She’s understandably traumatised and has fled to Puerto Rico.
They resort to desperate measures to get enough money together to mount a defence for Fonny. This is being handled by one of the few white people in the film who are sympathetic to the African-American pair. (Another is their landlord.)
The film is reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit in some ways. The anti-racist message was handled very forcibly there. Here it’s more muted, Jenkins’ direction going where it will in a series of evocative scenes that dwell tantalisingly on faces, gestures, impressionistic chiaroscuros.
At times his propensity for visualising images from Baldwin’s text is too insistent – one’s imagination usually works better in such instances – but this is a small caveat in a film characterised by a plethora of beautifully modulated performances.
It’s a lush undertaking with a languorous charm that flies in the face of the poverty and deprivation on view. Jenkins doesn’t put a foot wrong, bestowing great devotion to each multi-layered scene.
Everything is understated in the film, making you suspect the ending will be too – and it is. It’s almost as if he doesn’t need to tell us what happens to his characters. Showing their reactions to the events is enough.
The voiceover takes care of the ‘business’ of the film, leaving everything else to style and virtuosity
Regina King is getting most of the plaudits for the power with which she plays Sharon, Fonny’s feisty mother, but for me Layne was just as effective in a more difficult role.
The bewildered victim of a bigoted society, she resembles the young Whitney Houston as she blossoms into womanhood against the backdrop of the chaos surrounding her.
See this film at all costs but be prepared for some sexual material and strong language.