Jenkins poises his ‘Moonlight’ follow-up with a truly passionate spectacle as tribute.
Man, have I missed the romance of Barry Jenkins. His feature film slate may not boast much in terms of quantity for the time being. Nevertheless, his brand has always been distinct and timeless. And Jenkins’ modus operandi? Accurate portrayals of pure, unadulterated love.
It’s been a couple of years since the electric triumph that was Moonlight, and Jenkins is clearly ready to dominate the big screen once more with another vital, representative love story. This time, the foundation of his cinematic canvas is built from an especially formidable blueprint: the work of novelist and social critic James Baldwin.
When we first discovered that Jenkins would be adapting Baldwin’s book “If Beale Street Could Talk” into a feature film, we weren’t simply excited for yet another chance to see more work from an uber-talented filmmaker. Rather, Jenkins’ style is legitimately ideal for the frankness and romance of such a powerful Baldwin novel. There truly couldn’t have been a better person to get behind the camera to bring that fervent passion to life.
To celebrate what would’ve been Baldwin’s 94th birthday this week, Jenkins dropped a new teaser for If Beale Street Could Talk and it is everything we want and need, and more. Even with so little diegetic dialogue, the spot effuses the true extent of the emotional range that makes up Baldwin’s book. But you’re going to have to watch the teaser to experience all of that magic for yourself.
For the uninitiated, If Beale Street Could Talk centers on a young African-American couple fighting for their love in the face of sheer injustice. Tish (relative newcomer Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are engaged and ready to start a life together. However, their world crumbles when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and eventually incarcerated. Tish finds out that she is pregnant soon after her fiance is imprisoned. She, her family, and her lawyer must then work to free Fonny — even when all legal odds seem stacked against them — before the baby is born.
There is absolutely no faulty shot in this teaser for If Beale Street Could Talk, wherein cinematographer James Laxton — a frequent Jenkins collaborator — literally intoxicates viewers with the intimacy of his close-ups. Laxton’s contributions to Jenkins’ work have often helped to create specific moods and textures for the filmmaker to creatively inhabit. The Barry Jenkins cinematic universe doesn’t always look “real” in the gritty sense of the word; instead, Jenkins’ films are polished and heightened in appearance. Nevertheless, they are not so fantastical and removed that they’re easily discarded as unrelatable either. In fact, the exact opposite happens because of their investment in real situations. If Beale Street Could Talk is no different.
This is demonstrated through another noteworthy feature of the teaser: its impeccable sound edit; so bare-bones yet so effective. Baldwin’s own voice is overlaid across a montage of mostly wordless and otherwise soundless images before meshing with the organic noises of Harlem (in which the film is set). This “rumble” of New York was something that Jenkins and Laxton specifically captured in order to create an authentic interpretation of the city, and it certainly lends a gorgeous sense of normalcy and realness to the short trailer.
Despite being a fraction of the length of an actual feature, the spot for If Beale Street Could Talk already feels like art. Although a technical wonder, the footage hooks us and reels us in with emotional resonance. The images in If Beale Street Could Talk are a celebration of the wholeness of life, particularly black life. There’s love, lust, anger, pain, desperation, and so much more. The teaser is light on plot, but it doesn’t even need typical exposition when it can influence audiences on such an evocative level anyway.
The teaser doesn’t concern itself with overtly explicating the heartwrenching and hopeful story that will underpin its imagery, but it weighs heavy on our hearts all the same. We’re acutely aware that what we are about to watch will be topically relevant to the contentious climate of African-American civil rights in America today.
We’ve unpacked Jenkins’ quiet radicalism in the past, and If Beale Street Could Talk already appears to follow in that tradition of simply depicting life with candor. Acknowledging differences and championing their acceptance continue to play an important role in Jenkins’ oeuvre, as invoked by each seemingly disconnected shot in the trailer. As Baldwin himself omnipresently muses in the teaser, “The things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me to all the people who are alive.”
Thanks to Jenkins’ track record and the uniqueness of his vision, I don’t think it’s an overreaction to be really fucking excited for this movie after just one teaser. As confronting as If Beale Street Could Talk will undoubtedly be, there is a tenderness permeating its visual fabric already that leaves us vulnerable. If anything, that’s precisely what makes love — in general — so rewarding, and Jenkins is a master at translating that on screen.
If Beale Street Could Talk is set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September, before receiving a wide release on November 30th.