Barry Jenkins Gives a New Life to James Baldwin’s Legacy with If Beale Street Could Talk: TIFF Review

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If there’s anything to be said about Barry Jenkins, his track record is already setting himself up to become one of this generation’s best working filmmakers after his Academy Award-winning second film Moonlight, so how does he manage to follow up with his third film? Adapting the words of James Baldwin onto the screen shouldn’t seem like such an easy task for just about any writer-director, yet Barry Jenkins shows himself to be the perfect choice with relative ease. But as every small detail starts to come together in order to form what Barry Jenkins manages to bring to life in his own adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, you already start to feel that this film was so clearly made out of love for the text of Baldwin. This is a romance story on the surface, but Jenkins also takes that template to make something more meditative, just as Baldwin’s own social critiques would have inspired from American society back in his time – for watching this film we only find his message is still alive. There’s no better way to put how fully realized an effort like this is, and for all I know it may very well be one of the decade’s most beautiful films.

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Tish, 19, is in love with Fonny, a 22 year old sculptor. The two of them have loved one another since childhood, but presently their feelings for one another have developed into romance. The first moment in which Barry Jenkins introduces them onto the screen, we already get the idea that they are an inseparable couple, for in each other’s company they know they feel safe from the outside world. Yet in the blink of an eye, this sense of happiness that the two have found in one another only breaks apart after Fonny is set up by a racist police officer and arrested for a crime he did not commit. Baldwin has already established a reputation as one of the most influential African-American social critics of his time, whether it be through his works of fiction or his many book-length essays about patriarchy in Western society – and Barry Jenkins keeps that spirit alive when adapting If Beale Street Could Talk to the screen, thus allowing its perspective to remain fresh as ever.

Jenkins’s tender approach to the story of Tish and Fonny moves slowly, yet it takes you in as if you’re experiencing a dream. In that dream, you only feel the happiness that the two of them feel when they are together with one another, just as you imagine the very best romances would blossom. Yet as Jenkins continues painting the picture of what their environment has also set in stone for their future, there’s a dramatic break that only makes yourself feel more enclosed within their perspective. But that break is not one that feels jarring, it just helps you understand the world of Tish and Fonny all the more. Jenkins doesn’t only keep this perspective limited to being just one reality, but you already feel like it could easily have been that of something you recognized – for it also feels shared between the film’s viewers, recognizing of this struggle as universal. One can already note Jenkins’s own empathy for his characters through the form of his storytelling, but it’s also impressive how even his visual style, aided with the masterful cinematography of James Laxton allows that feeling to encapsulate their moods – and it only adds something more beautiful to the screen.

Even with the film’s timely setting, we are never witnessing the struggles of said time period only as being a thing of the past. None of this is happening to them as a result of who they are, but it’s all because of what they are – and it also feels like the perfect reminder that society still has a whole lot to learn about how they have really progressed, and the harmful stigma it poses on the modern world. If there’s anything else that best keeps the spirit of James Baldwin alive, this is where it can be most felt, especially in how Jenkins retains a certain feeling of anger towards the way the world has come to fall down on top of Fonny and Tish, the moment in which they start to find themselves. You already feel every bit of Baldwin’s anger still retains in the way Barry Jenkins adapts his words into his own screenplay, but there also happens to be a new life to that anger because the meditative nature of If Beale Street Could Talk only comes again to serve as a wake-up call to its own viewers. This is a film that reminds oneself of the trials that comprise life: finding happiness and the pain that comes afterwards, but why must these people suffer at a much greater rate than others? It’s that anger that makes for an absolutely stunning work, yet also an emotional gut punch, one with perhaps an effect unlike that of what Moonlight had already left.

Everyone can already come to commend the performances of the leads KiKi Layne and Stephan James, but I find it’s still astonishing how even those with much smaller parts in If Beale Street Could Talk leave an impact in some way or another – such examples can be found in the brief appearances of Diego Luna or Ed Skrein. It’s easy enough to note that Regina King and Colman Domingo can leave as much an impact as they do, but speaking in regards to how Jenkins can still create characters that leave a sense of impact with brief sequences unlike those he places in the focus only speaks wonders for Jenkins’s ability to understand the world that his characters inhabit, from their eyes and making that perception of the world something easier to share. It’s easy enough to say that even with only three feature films out, Barry Jenkins is a master of his own craft, having learned all the best from the best – yet even to say something of this sort would already be rather redundant, because much can already be said of such a skill it never feels easy to pinpoint even if all the most beautiful aspects shine right in front of your eyes.

There’s a lot that I want to talk about regarding what If Beale Street Could Talk had made me feel when I sat there to watch everything blossom on the screen the way it did. When I sat there watching everything crumble, I felt angry, like I imagine that James Baldwin would have been at the way his people have been treated by American society at the time. Yet in that anger, I also found myself in a depressive state – because of how so much of this feels like a fight still being fought today. Beautiful would be one way of stating how sublime such a work like this is, because something only tells me inside that James Baldwin is looking at Barry Jenkins with pride that someone has given his words a new life on the screen. This isn’t simply a tragic romance film elevated by the social commentary presented by its own background, but it also feels like a perfect wake-up call to the world because hate only splits marginalized people even further apart. I hear the sadness, I hear the happiness talking through the walls, trying to break its way through, watching If Beale Street Could Talk, I ponder more about what we hear “if Beale Street could talk.”


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Annapurna Pictures.


Directed by Barry Jenkins
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins, from the novel by James Baldwin
Produced by Megan Ellison, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, Barry Jenkins
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 117 minutes

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