When I saw Black Swan on its release in January 2011, I knew right then I’d seen my film of the year. I was so drawn in and immersed in it that I knew for sure I would not see another movie to equal it for the remaining twelve months. The same thing happened right at the start of 2016 with Room and its staggering human story that was exceptional yet still beguilingly relatable. Now I think a similar thing has occurred again. If Beale Street Could Talk has both the involving narrative and the universal truths and I’m certain, even with a couple of big geek movies coming out, that I’ve just had this year’s most rewarding trip to the cinema.
If Beale Street Could Talk is writer/director Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, the film that literally snatched the Oscar from the La La Hands of La La Land a couple of years ago. Adapted from the book by author and equal rights activist James Baldwin it tells of Tish and Fonny, a young African American couple in 70s Harlem. As the two are trying to make a life together, the racist society around them works, thoughtlessly, callously and casually, to keep them apart.
Black experience is absolutely key to this story but tied into it just as deeply is the experience of love. Right at the heart of this film is the central duo’s unshakable partnership and not since Shakespeare have we seen two people, one barely out of their teens and one not yet in their twenties, so completely, so touchingly and so convincingly devoted to each other. There is sadness here but their story and the film that tells it is all still so achingly beautiful.
The love in doesn’t just start and end with these two either. The film also movingly depicts the unconditional love between parents and their children and the steadfast love between siblings. Tish’s family stand by her and her partner magnificently when she falls pregnant and he falls out of favour with a vengeful patrol cop and the way they respond to these events and the support they give the two of them is as moving as any other part of the story. There is an extended scene early on in which Tish tells first them and then Fonny’s family that she is expecting and it is as compelling as any dialogue scene that Tarantino, Mamet or Sorkin have written and much more authentic. This moment alone is a masterclass of writing and acting, incorporating in turn tension, joy, celebration and shock.
This is the thing about If Beale Street Could Talk; all of the different elements are brilliant. It isn’t just the characterisation, the performances and the script, it’s the perfectly paced direction, the aureate lighting, the costumes, the sets, the editing, the framing and the heart penetrating music. Simple cinema simply doesn’t get any better. To give you more would be to steal away much of what If Beale Street Could Talk has to say but hear me when I tell you should see it. It might be your film of the year.
The Ripley Factor:
Do the female characters exist only to define or motivate men?
Absolutely not. There are lots of strong women in the film with great agency and they drive the plot forward.
Does the inclusion of the women in the film feel like tokenism?
There is great equality in the way women and men are represented here with neither being raised or lowered to emphasise the other. In the end I think it is mostly a woman’s film but without feeling like a feminist film.
Are the women in the film realistic?
Totally and admirably.
Are women objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film?
There is female nudity in the film but it is mostly balanced and is shot with real sensitivity rather than any learing sensibilities.