A rich, deep drama about overcoming.
By Adenosine Tripposphate
Inevitably, the comparisons to director Barry Jenkins’ previous work, Moonlight, are inescapable. With If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins examinations on masculinity, normalization of bigotry, and the endemic apathy within the system that allowed for routine injustice to occur, are all present. In his latest film, the social-political aspects of struggle, resolution and overcoming, are all active agencies within the story.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a slowburn. It is a drama in the old-sense of a drama. Still, the cinematography, while more muted in comparison to the director’s previous film, is still incredibly lush, cinematically opting instead for a more intimate, warm, noir feel. And it is an intimate film.
In If Beale Street Could Talk, we follow the story of “Tish” and “Fonny” (their nicknames), as their blossoming romance is seemingly halted, as the latter is taken to jail to await a trail for a crime he did not commit. To make matters more complicated, news of the couples unexpected pregnancy stirs up a heated rivalry between their families. Their inexperience and helplessness in the face of a system that has been pitted against them, serves as an examination and exploration of the themes of hate, masculinity, femininity and religion.
Partly, If Beale Street Could Talk is the continuation and exploration of the common themes from the director’s previous film. In Moonlight, Jenkins highlighted the often toxic aspects of the masculine ideal as a norm within our culture, and how endemic those traits become at various structures of every day life. In If Beale Street Could Talk, those common expectations are instead subverted; It is not a film where male characters are presented as positive because of their tight-rope walk of aggression and stoicism in the face of injustice. No, instead, it is a film in which male characters are depicted as vulnerable, emotional, and at times desperate. However, the core conceit, and certainly what sets If Beale Street Could Talk apart from the traditional narrative, is that these traits are not depicted as emasculating, “unmanly” or negative.
Make no mistake, this is not an indictment on masculinity or manhood; the characters in this film are strong (both emotionally and physically). It is clear however, that Barry Jenkins seeks to refine the parts of the masculine identity that are problematic; opting instead to showcase a range of masculinity that is not confined to a rigid set of harmful ideals, nor marginalizes groups men that don’t adhere to those standards.
Male vulnerability, in If Beale Street Could Talk, is not depicted as robbing one of one’s agency. Rather, it is depicted as a wide and complex spectrum of human emotion. Male characters are depicted as emotionally available, empathic to their female counterparts, showcasing a deference to superior agents, and co-operative. The ability to reason and overcome being stronger traits than merely being physically dominant and reliant on emotionality.
Moonlight is by far one of the greatest films ever made. It is intense, relatable and speaks to problems that many of whom have struggled. I’m absolutely happy and thankful that Barry Jenkins had much more to say about the issues of everyday life of people like me. He understands those struggles, and in If Beale Street Could Talk, seeks to continue that dialogue, and—perhaps, offer a solution.