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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: intimately cinematic

If I had seen Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's novel "If Beale Street Could Talk" a few weeks ago, I would have included it among my favorite films of 2018. Unfortunately, I didn't see it until earlier this week.

Fortunately, I did see it. And loved it. As I tried to explain in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

As he demonstrated in his Oscar-winning 2016 film “Moonlight,” writer-director Barry Jenkins has perfected his own personal filmmaking style. Call it a cinema of intimacy.

Few arts are as capable of capturing the human experience as fully, and as well, as film. Live theater may feel more vital than film, especially when it’s performed in settings where the audience sits close enough to hear the actors breathe. But film, especially in the hands of someone as talented as Jenkins, has its own way of immersing an audience into its theatrical reality.

Part of what Jenkins does is pull his camera close. The faces of his cast fill the frame, allowing us – at times forcing us – to see each characters’ emotions play out through their ever-evolving expressions. But even in scenes where the emphasis is on a group, Jenkins strives to make us feel less witnesses to something than actual participants.

Of course, to get the full effect of such artistic intimacy, Jenkins needs the right actors. And in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” he succeeds every bit as well as he did with “Moonlight,” both with relative unknowns as Stephan James and Kiki Layne and with veterans such as Regina King and Colman Domingo.

It is James and Layne who have the movie’s starring roles, that of Fonny and Tish, a young African-American couple – he’s 22, she’s just 19 – who though raised together have only recently fallen in love. They live in New York City, and the era is the early 1970s – a time of particular racial turmoil. And it is that turmoil, expressed as it was both overtly and covertly, that novelist James Baldwin and filmmaker Jenkins seek to explore.

Yet it would be doing Jenkins a disservice to describe his adaptation of “If Beale Street Could Talk” as a study only of racism. Prejudice surely overshadows everything the movie’s characters hope to do. But even for them, life isn’t that simple.

Fonny possesses an artistic soul, something that runs counter to his family’s expectations. And the fact that he doesn’t hold the same Christian convictions as his mother, whose religious sentiments are as unforgiving as they are ironic, alienates him – and Tish – from her even further.

When in one powerful scene Fonny’s father hits his mother, the movie probes the theme of domestic violence. And when Fonny is unfairly accused of rape, causing Tish’s mother (played by King) to track down the accuser, the movie tackles even more aspects of the enduring threat of violence facing all women, but especially women of color.

Throughout all this strife, though, the main feeling that Jenkins conveys is one of hope. Not the sappy kind of hope that tells us love will conquer all, but a more realistic one about a love that, despite everything, endures. That’s the kind of hope, certainly that Baldwin must have wanted to communicate when he put these words in Tish’s mouth:

“Somewhere, in time, Fonny and I had met: somewhere, in time, we had loved; somewhere, no longer in time, but, now, totally, at time’s mercy, we loved.”