If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Of recent cinematic talent, there are few who have garnered as much attention as Barry Jenkins — not least thanks to his Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), though that came quite a few years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Still, it allowed him to make this film, which is as gorgeous and sensuous a film as any made in the last decade.


I mean, clearly, I was never not going to love this film: Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking is almost the definition of what I like in terms of film style, a swooning, gauzy, gorgeous, beautifully-orchestrated adaptation of a great writer’s work. (I hadn’t even realised that I’d seen the only other Baldwin film adaptation, which is of the same novel, 20 years ago, and while I doubt that Robert Guédiguian’s À la place du coeur is bad, because I have liked his films a fair deal, it also hasn’t stuck in my mind at all…) Anyway, this film has all the beauty and sense of atmosphere he brought to Moonlight, as it follows the love story of these two young people bringing a child into the world. KiKi Layne is fantastic as Tish, in particular, and I don’t know why she’s not getting all the awards attention, but it’s possibly because she pulls her character in so tightly, as this woman who seems to be trying to disappear under the eyes of the adults around her, almost squeaking out her lines, while very clearly having huge reserves of strength and passion within her that at times become far more evident. Jenkins’ style is to draw out these moments with a great, tender eye, such as when the two families meet together, which is like a slow-motion car crash of a scene, at once going exactly how you expect it will, but also with these moments between actors (Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister is another highlight), as they catch one another’s eye, or react almost imperceptibly but palpably on film. It’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, and a beautiful love story too, which happens to make clear the immense amount of difficulty they have to face just going about their day-to-day lives, as young Black people in America. It may be set in the 70s, but one doesn’t feel much has changed in certain respects.

If Beale Street Could Talk film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the novel by James Baldwin); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.

Medicine for Melancholy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins; Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017.

Moonlight (2016)

I am hardly the person to attempt a critique of this film, for so many reasons, at so many levels, so take my comments as just a brief personal response to a film that will be sure to be in many top-10 lists this year and next (it’s not officially released in the UK until February).

I found a great deal to appreciate in the filmmaking, which, for all the limitations of its budget and shooting/rehearsal time (as the director talked about in a Q&A after my screening), has clearly been constructed with a lot of care. It follows a tripartite structure, three ages of a character, three different acts in one life, which is also refracted as multiple lives in a sense. The first character we see (Mahershala Ali’s Juan, whose role is confined to the first part of the film) is a reflection of the man the protagonist Chiron (at that point called ‘Little’) becomes by the film’s third part, and it’s tempting to read some of the same feelings into Juan that Little/Chiron/Black is grappling with.

The milieu the director is playing with at once seems all too familiar (something almost of clichés, and certainly of too many bad ‘ghetto’ dramas) but never follows the expected contours, such that the scenes are infused with the constant expectation of violence, and even when they don’t play out that way, a strong sense of trauma is still conveyed, a sense of an experience lived in this place, which is also (partially) the director’s own.

Ultimately, for all its formal gravitas — the polished lighting, the (presumably intentionally) dizzying camerawork, the music and orchestral score, the structure — despite all this, the heart of the movie, and what I liked so much in it, was in the acting: all three of the actors playing Chiron at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and then Trevante Rhodes) do wonders with very few words. The character of Chiron and the way he develops puts across the generational pain of toxic masculinity in a powerful way. It also, I hope — I really hope — augurs more films exploring its particular intersection of identities, because it also feels like a film that’s trying to make up for a lot of missed opportunities.

Moonlight (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 5 December 2016.