In an interview for Little White Lies, film-maker Barry Jenkins said that in his early 20’s an ex-girlfriend gave him Giovanni’s Room (1956) to read after they broke up, as she hoped it would help him to mature as a person. I saw this, and ordered the acclaimed novel of Amazon straight away, not really in an attempt to grow up (though perhaps I need it), but more as an attempt to match my intake of art with one of the great working artists. For those that don’t know, Giovanni’s Room is a novel written by James Baldwin about a man living in Paris, who has an incredibly sensual affair with a barman called Giovanni whilst he is waiting for his girlfriend to return from Spain. The book covers the burning passion of the encounters, and the subsequent guilt afterwards, along with the trials of the heart the characters put upon each-other. It is a remarkable experience to read Giovanni’s Room, and at 150 pages long, it only takes a few sittings to get through it, however the journey is so exquisite that you wish that it was longer. Like any piece of fiction that touches on love, I was entranced by it, holding onto every word, every sentence and every segment of dialogue. It is beautiful literature, that works as a narrator recollecting memories, reaching for emotions over specific events, and Barry Jenkins reproduces this style in If Beale Street Could Talk. The film is an adaptation of one of Baldwin’s later works, that I haven’t read yet (it’s in the post), however you can see Baldwin’s prose breathing through Jenkins’ directing.
Barry Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight (2016) won ‘best picture’ at the Oscars, so you could say there was a fair deal of pressure on him for his next attempt, especially since many critics have cited that film as a masterpiece. Moonlight is an art-house film, that I enjoyed but didn’t love, because I think that it has more flaws than people care to point out, however I appreciate its importance and its technical mastery. Beale Street is a triumph, and a true adaptation of the feelings that Baldwin evokes in his writing, with my main point being that Jenkins has transformed a novel to a film, and not simply wrote a movie script from a book that he’s a fan of. It’s essentially a love story, about two young people who have grown up in the same neighbourhood together – Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). They are torn apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, and sent to jail, only learning that Tish is pregnant with his child once he is inside. Jenkins weaves the plot around this event, by showing the relationship beforehand and the attempts after by Tish’s family to free Fonny by clearing his name. The film has a rhythmic and lyrical sensibility to it, where scenes flow together smoothly, with the camera moving like a floating poltergeist watching down on their surviving family. It is soft and florid at times, creating a weightless and dreamy look to the flashback scenes of Tish and Fonny, but that doesn’t mean it is not vibrant, or lifeless. The colours are warm and hue-y, with Jenkins pushing in and out from the characters as though we are focusing in on their thoughts. A stunning score by Nicholas Britell is placed over the top of all this, and the music is where the film begins to strangle you, leading you to be lost in the world of the film. The track titled ‘Agape’ is the one that will break you. This melancholia is constantly present in Baldwin’s writing, as is an honest respect for romance, and lust, which Jenkins threads throughout the runtime.
Jenkins has made few films, and people have only been properly aware of him since Moonlight, but he already has his own style and signature moves. The most obvious example of this would be the way that he makes his actors stare directly at the camera, but much has been wrote about that, by far more qualified people than me. What I enjoy about his film-making, is his compassion and his lack of cynicism when it comes to romantic and poetic moments. He treats these moments with a tactile advance, and in Beale Street, you can’t help feel full of love and joy during these scenes. Whether its Tish’s sister telling her to un-bow her head, or a wonderful scene between Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), where Daniel tells him of the trouble he faced in prison. It’s a great scene not only because of the content of the discussion, but Jenkins positions it perfectly, where the camera slowly drifts from Fonny to Daniel as they speak and the performances the two actors give are completely captivating. The sex scene is endearing, where Jenkins elongates the build up in silence, until Fonny reminds her that she is safe, and that he would never hurt her. Jenkins fills the screen with their bodies, and we can see the sweat pouring off them, as they tentatively come closer together, framing them with no perversion, relying on their acute chemistry. Baldwin’s sex in Giovanni’s Room is much of the same, where it is formulaic to a point of mechanical physical contact, and people are attracted to one another so they do something about it, in an essence of sweetness and raw human nature.
Another aspect of Baldwin’s writing that Jenkins manages to capture is the story playing out like the narrator is recollecting memories. Tish is guiding us through the events with her voice, remembering details of how she feels physically, staying distant from what is actually happening. This makes the experience emotionally investing, because you are keying in and out of moments as Tish remembers them. Jenkins structures the film very precisely, where the time frame is very loose, cutting back and forth between before Fonny was imprisoned, to after, whilst making it unclear and unimportant how much time has passed. The film has an easy pace at the beginning, then suddenly we are introduced to the crux of the story (Fonny being falsely accused of rape), where the pace becomes quicker and sharper, and then Jenkins mixes the plot engrossment with more abstract notes of cinematography. It is less kinetic and more large brush strokes crossing across several canvases. The end painting is a lush one where the melancholia is obvious, yet it is the methodical way in which Jenkins situates the scenes of the film that make it powerful. It’s an editing feat by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, where they allow Jenkins to pragmatically flick back and forth through the story, to envision a climatic message that you’ve been lost in for two hours. More directly, the film is that gorgeous balance between wandering artistry and scientific story-telling, similar to how Fonny feels about his own work – he is an artisan, not an artist.
This isn’t a review of the film, but I haven’t even mentioned how alive the performances are, from all the cast. Many have pointed out Regina King’s matriarchal force, but I would look to the two leads, and Kiki Layne as Tish in particular because she is the real soul of the movie. Basically I was in love with this film as soon as it begun, and in awe, but also sadness by the end. It is ultimately a heartbreaking tale of systematic and societal racism crushing down on an innocent and affectionate relationship, and by staying close to a love story, Jenkins is uncovering more wider issues, something that James Baldwin did all the way through his career. He was a key cultural civil rights activist, something that Jenkins claims not to be, but of course he is inadvertently achieving that anyway through mirroring Baldwin’s behaviour. I don’t know why love and romance affects me so much, but Giovanni’s Room got me, as did If Beale Street Could Talk, and as have countless other tales of amorous sentiment.
GO AND WATCH THIS FILM. IT IS BETTER THAN ANYTHING YOU WOULD OTHERWISE SEE.