If Beale Street Could Talk, the new Barry Jenkins film.

If Beale Street Could Talk.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the keen­ly await­ed fol­low up to the sur­prise hit that Bar­ry Jenk­ins had in 2016, when he won the Acad­e­my award for Best Film with Moon­light. And if that weren’t pres­sure enough, it’s a James Bald­win adap­ta­tion. 

Tish and Fon­ny are child­hood sweet­hearts, but the lat­ter is in jail hav­ing been false­ly accused of rape. And Tish is preg­nant with their first child. So she and their two fam­i­lies are try­ing des­per­ate­ly to some­how raise the cash need­ed to pay for what will almost cer­tain­ly be a fruit­less attempt at legal redress. 

Beau­ti­ful­ly shot and impec­ca­bly craft­ed, Jenk­ins takes an ellip­ti­cal approach to the nar­ra­tive as he moves back and forth through time to con­struct his sto­ry one piece at a time. Essen­tial­ly it’s a love sto­ry with shades of Romeo and Juli­et, as Fonny’s moth­er looks down from a height at the match her son has dis­as­trous­ly made with his unwor­thy mate.

This is bril­liant­ly cap­tured in what is in effect the cen­tral scene, as they two fam­i­lies square off from one anoth­er as Tish’s par­ents announce the hap­py news of her preg­nan­cy. And there­in lies the rub. For this scene is what the first third of the film cul­mi­nates with. And although the rest of the film is per­fect­ly fine, indeed most­ly very good, the rest of the film nev­er quite lives up to that first third.

Maher­sha­la Ali and Alex R. Hib­bert in Moon­light (2016)

This, you’ll remem­ber, is exact­ly what hap­pens with Moon­light, which I reviewed ear­li­er here. That film is divid­ed into three parts, and the first two, and espe­cial­ly the first, are excru­ci­at­ing­ly mov­ing. But the third is ever so slight­ly under­whelm­ing. Well, to put it in Wildean terms, to fail to ratch­et up the dra­mat­ic ten­sion of your sto­ry once is for­giv­able, but to do so twice feels like carelessness.

James Bald­win’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

All dra­ma must needs move through an arc, ris­ing and ris­ing, before final­ly falling. You need to pass through E C C C C; Expo­si­tion, Con­flict, Cri­sis, Cat­a­stro­phe before final Cathar­sis. And dra­mat­i­cal­ly speak­ing, both of Jenk­ins’ two prin­ci­ple films flat­line after the dra­ma of their first halves.

If Beale Street Could Talk is still a very good film, it looks rav­ish­ing and it’s a won­der­ful anti­dote to all that green screen non­sense. But Jenk­ins will need to work with some­one on struc­ture and the build­ing of dra­mat­ic ten­sion if he’s to avoid becom­ing but a bril­liant stylist.

You can see the trail­er to If Beale Street Could Talk here.

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Moonlight Triumphs



One of the great mys­ter­ies of the show biz world is how it is that the most gift­ed, tal­ent­ed and ambi­tious stars in Hol­ly­wood con­trive to pro­duce the most tedious tele­vi­sion pro­gramme of the entire year. The Oscars are so drea­ri­ly pre­dictable and every ges­ture has plain­ly been chore­o­graphed with­in an inch of its life.

Iron­i­cal­ly, quite how redun­dant the Oscars are as a tv show was fur­ther high­light­ed by this year’s extra­or­di­nary GUBU – that’s Grotesque Unbe­liev­able Bizarre and Unprece­dent­ed for the unini­ti­at­ed. Because the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple who sub­se­quent­ly watched that, there’s no oth­er word for it, unbe­liev­able cock-up will have seen it as a clip on Youtube, there­by avoid­ing hav­ing to sit through the hours and hours of tedi­um that it was pre­ced­ed and fol­lowed by. On the off chance that you missed it, here it is.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to ?

Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Drag­on, which lost to Glad­i­a­tor.

Unusu­al­ly, they actu­al­ly got is right this year. Moon­light real­ly is the best film of the year. But under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, few mem­bers of the Acad­e­my would have both­ered tak­ing their dvd copy out of its box – they gave the Best Pic­ture award to Bird­man over Boy­hood (reviewed ear­li­er here) in 2014, to The King’s Speech over Toy Sto­ry 3 and The Social Net­work in 2010, and to Glad­i­a­tor over Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Drag­on and Traf­fic in 2000.

Based on the unpub­lished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moon­light is divid­ed into three acts as we fol­low the grow­ing pains of a young black kid as a child, a teenag­er and as a young man. The dam­aged only child of a drug-addled moth­er who pays for her habit the only way she can, he is ren­dered all the more shy and awk­ward by virtue of being secret­ly gay. All of which screams hope­less­ly dull but drea­ri­ly worthy.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2012, and also supported by Brad Pitt.

12 Years A Slave, anoth­er sur­prise win­ner in 2013, and, like Moon­light, also sup­port­ed by Brad Pitt.

Hap­pi­ly, indeed impres­sive­ly, the film soars above and beyond its the­atri­cal ori­gins and rather than being sub­ject­ed to the sort of preachy lec­ture that the mate­r­i­al sug­gests, what we get instead is a vision that some­how man­ages to be both impres­sion­is­tic and cool­ly detached at the same time. Direc­tor Bar­ry Jenk­ins, whose sec­ond film this is, worked on the script with McCraney, and both do a remark­able job of free­ing the mate­r­i­al from its source and inject­ing gen­uine cin­e­mat­ic life into it. But they man­age to do so with­out ever los­ing sight of quite how hor­ren­dous­ly dif­fi­cult grow­ing up is for a gay black kid in the sub­urbs, when the only hope any of them ever have of escape is of tai­lor­ing to, and feed­ing off, peo­ple like his mother.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Boy­hood, which lost to Bird­man.

Mag­nif­i­cent yes, but not quite the mas­ter­piece some would have you believe. In parts one and two, every time he tries to just get on with his life the out­side world comes crash­ing down on him and it’s heart wrench­ing to wit­ness. But by the time we get to the third and final part, the world leaves him momen­tar­i­ly in peace, and he is final­ly giv­en space to breathe. So you leave the cin­e­ma on a much lighter note than you might have expect­ed, but you are left feel­ing ever so slight­ly short changed.

The brilliant if dark Toy Story 3.

That’s how you make sequels.

But that is a minor quib­ble. This is a major film and Jenk­ins is a seri­ous tal­ent. Let’s just hope he man­ages to walk away from the obscene amounts of mon­ey that as we speak will be appear­ing on tables in front of him across the whole of Hol­ly­wood. Just say no.

You can see the trail­er for Moon­light here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!