If Beale Street Could Talk

* * * * (out of five)

I haven’t read James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, but I have no doubt that writer / director Barry Jenkins’ (Moonlight) copy has twenty annotations per page. This is an adaptation that feels as authentic, respectful and committed to the source material as they come; Jenkins has not used the book as a starting point, he has done everything in his power to bring the book to the screen.

That included bringing the book’s emotional impact: how it makes Jenkins feel. His film version is awash with feeling; at times, it is as much about mood as anything, about how it stimulates the senses. It is about music and colour and framing and is so effective in those areas I swear that I could practically smell Riverside Park, in Harlem, in the early 1970s.

There, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) are deeply in love. They’re been in love since they were children. Now, they’re sexually active dynamic people in their early twenties, and the world, for them (and thus, for us) is aglow with colour and passion and love. At times, there is nothing in the world for them but them, and Jenkins is not afraid, in this bustling city, to render them alone on a street, cocooned in the world of their love.

But this is backstory, flashback: in the present, Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish is pregnant with their child. How their families help them with this bittersweet predicament forms the slight plot of this moving story. It is surprising, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and deeply, deeply compassionate.

It’s a world outside of my own experience and I felt a little like an outsider; Jenkins has said he makes films for black American audiences and anyone else can come if they like. How Australian audiences will relate, we’ll see. This is not a “universal story” but rather one that is highly specific to the African American experience. Except, of course, for that big, big presence of Love, which is in every frame of the film. That’s where everyone can relate; that’s (the outsiders’) “in”.

Nicholas Britell’s score is monumentally beautiful, moving and apt; it may be the first original motion picture soundtrack I’ve bought since last century. The craft in every department is similarly of the highest possible caliber. Layne and James, perversely, make the least impact (James, I find and found in Homecoming, is rather wooden) but the film’s supporting actors light up every scene around them. All are brilliant but Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s loving parents are exceptional, as is Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry in an astonishing one-scene role.

This is a deeply felt, lovingly made movie that will stand the test of time. Push your boundaries.

Moonlight

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**** (out of five)

Barry Jenkins’ tale of a young man’s early life in three parts is a cinematic work of uncommon intimacy and integrity. Like the recent Jackie and the spectacular, micro-budget Krisha, it tells a simple, straightforward story with big, bold cinematic choices, particularly in its use of music, framing and colour. It is experiential as much as propelling, poetic as much as engaging. Like those other films, it feels like it is re-discovering the simple joys of image and sound; all three movies feel unburdened by any sort of “rules”, and they highlight the pedestrian way most films actually use mise-en-scene.

The film is about Chiron, played in the film’s three chapters by three different actors. In the first chapter, Chiron is a young boy living with his drug-taking mother (Naomi Harris, excellent) in Miami – and, subtly but definitely, gay. He knows it and other people know it, and it’s causing him confusion. Luckily, a local drug dealer (Marhershala Ali, showing the kind of powerful charisma exuded by Michael Kenneth Williams in The Wire and The Night Of) takes him under his wing.

In the second chapter, Chiron is a teenager, and in the third, a young man. The film’s dramatic crucible is how the third version of Chiron is created by the first two. His “gayness”, which is apparent to all (and in an example of the film’s subtle integrity, not at all to us) is an internal and external challenge for him; at his high school, his lone, outsider status has rendered him shy, awkward and vulnerable. Meanwhile, his mother’s drug use has developed into full-scale addiction, and his powerful mentor has (mysteriously?) disappeared, leaving behind his girlfriend (Janelle Monae), who can feed Chiron and love him, but still can’t get him to talk.

Chiron is a tricky character to engage with because his inherent character traits are so deliberately unengaging. Head bowed, silent, slight, he is trying to fade into the background or even disappear from the world, and the other characters’ frustration at his introversion is occasionally felt by us. But Jenkins’ bold decision to use three different actors pays off. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes obviously worked together to generate a set of physical and vocal characteristics for Chiron that provide a deep continuity for the character even as the film’s chosen narrative technique fractures him.

Miami is rendered exquisitely, as hot, colourful, exotic and edgy. We don’t often see Black American characters on beaches, staring at the ocean, and their stories are certainly rarely – if ever! – accompanied by the kind of score provided here by Nicholas Britell. Fuelled by big strings and piano, it’s evocative of classical European music – white man’s music. It’s another bold choice, almost of cultural appropriation (“reverse” cultural appropriation?) and it pays off gorgeously. Again, like Jackie and Krisha, the score here is integral to the experience of the film.

There’s a lot of hype around Moonlight; it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category, and is a front-runner, with La La Land, for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s worth going in knowing that the story itself is simple, clear and hardly revolutionary; it’s the execution here that matters. It’s one of those rare films that actually hits you the hardest the moment it finishes, when, all of a sudden, you realise what it is that you’ve actually been watching.