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Barry Jenkins cements himself as an essential voice with “If Beale Street Could Talk”

From the moment anyone in the industry saw Moonlight, it was clear that Barry Jenkins was going to be a force in Hollywood. Before it had Oscar buzz, before it was an awards season darling, and before it made Jenkins an Academy Award winner (not to mention before it took home Best Picture), it was just a phenomenal movie that heralded a filmmaker who had found an essential voice. Now, with Jenkins’ latest hitting screens in If Beale Street Could Talk, that voice has been unleashed again. A one of a kind writer and director, Jenkins is having a conversation with his audience that few other creative forces in the industry are having.

The film, adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is a drama, while also a romance, and at the same time a look at the criminal justice system. Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) is a woman in Harlem deeply in love with Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James). Newly engaged, they’re also about to expect their first child. While there is some apprehension among Fonny’s family, Tish’s parents Joseph Rivers (Colman Domingo) and Sharon Rivers (Regina King) are overjoyed. It’s not all love and happiness though, as Fonny ends up behind bars, framed and railroaded by a racist system. What follows is a look back at their relationship, as well as a race against time for Tish, hoping to free Fonny before they become parents. Jenkins adapts the Baldwin novel into screenplay form and directs. Supporting players in the large ensemble cast include Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Dave Franco, Brian Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Ebony Obsidian, Teyonah Parris, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Dominique Thorne, Finn Wittrock, and more. Nicholas Britell composes yet another perfect score, while amazing cinematography comes from James Laxton.

If Beale Street Could Talk looks beautiful. Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker whose heart just empties out onto the screen. His passion seeps into every frame of this film. While I would say that I prefer Moonlight to If Beale Street Could Talk, both are wonderful. The former surprised you like a bolt of lightning. This latter outing just confirms how amazingly passionate Jenkins is. Plus, his collaboration with DP James Laxton is something else. As just mentioned, the movie looks gorgeous. Throw in a great ensemble cast, with Regina King rightly heralded for her supporting turn, and this is a flick that has got the goods in a big way. If there’s a flaw, it’s slack pacing at times and occasional lapses in focus, but these are small quibbles that in no way distract from all the good onscreen.

Academy Award voters are going to be hard to figure out when it comes to If Beale Street Could Talk. If nothing else, Annapurna is going with a full court press to make the effort. A campaign is underway in Best Picture, Best Director (for Jenkins), Best Actor (for James), Best Actress (for Layne), Best Supporting Actor (for Domingo and Henry), Best Supporting Actress (for King), Best Adapted Screenplay (also for Jenkins), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score, and Best Visual Effects. At the moment, citations in Picture, Supporting Actress for King, Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins, Cinematography, and Original Score seem like solid propositions.

This weekend, audiences who embraces Jenkins with Moonlight will again be able to do so when If Beale Street Could Talk comes to town. Separate from the awards season conversation, it’s just cinema that deserves to be seen and praised. It’s a luminous work that cements just how important this filmmaker is going to be in the years to come. He’s already an essential voice right now, but the future is bright. If half of his movies are like this one, we’ll be in for many a treat. Seek this film out and let it just wash over you. It’s an experience that you will not regret.

Be sure to check out If Beale Street Could Talk, in theaters beginning this Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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