Our guest writer/correspondence John H Foote writes from TIFF18, about Barry Jenkin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
Barry Jenkins is without question a major filmmaker. His film ‘Moonlight’ (2016) shockingly (or not…) won the Academy Award for Best Picture and earned the filmmaker an Oscar for his sensitive, haunting screenplay. Ironically he is back at TIFF with Oscar winner Damien Chazelle, who guided the extraordinary ‘La La Land’ (2016). Jenkins took Best Picture for his film, Chazelle took Best Director for himself as well as the Directors Guild of America Award and countless other awards. Chazelle is here with ‘First Man’, the hotly anticipated Neil Armstrong biography.
I was thrilled that ‘Moonlight’ (2016), a tiny independent film made for under two million dollars won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It told me that the members of the Academy are watching the films more closely these days, and are focusing on cinema with a story. Since 2010 the winning Best Films have been ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010), ‘The Artist’ (2011), ‘Argo’ (2012), ’12 Years a Slave’ (2013), ‘Birdman’ (2014), ‘Spotlight’ (2015), ‘Moonlight’ (2016) and ‘The Shape of Water’ (2017), all exceptionally story driven films. Within the fickle Academy, the times are a-changin’…and it is long past time.
The trouble with the follow-up film to your breakthrough film is that one, all eyes are on you, and two, it is rare that the film following a great success will be anywhere near as good. Some get lucky, Coppola did with ‘The Godfather’ (1972) which he followed with ‘The Conversation’ (1974), Spielberg certainly did following ‘Jaws’ (1975) with ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977), and Paul Thomas Anderson did following ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997) with the astonishing ‘Magnolia’ (1999). However, more often than not, the follow-up film does not achieve what the previous did.
That is certainly true of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, made with exquisite care and craftsmanship, acted with deep feeling, but so slow that it is agonizing. Seriously, this one drags on as though the running time was the rest of eternity, and while I was very impressed with the superb performance of the great Regina King, it was not near enough. Once again Jenkins places his camera on the black experience in America, exploring family and dysfunction with his probing screenplay and sensitive, spot-on direction.
Tish (Kiki Layne) is nineteen and pregnant by her boyfriend Fonny (Stephen James) who is about to be imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Accused of rape, it appears because he is black he must be guilty. The film does a beautiful job exploring the deep love between the two, but all the hardships that come with loving someone, being with them. In the case of Tish, the deck seems stacked against her every step of the way. She is is, fortunately, a strong, willful young woman with the support of her loving mother all the way. In the films, finest performance Regina King is filled with soul and wisdom, as her mother, understanding better than anyone the path of a black young woman and giving her girl the smarts to chart her course carefully. Yet challenges meet her every day, just as they do Fonny, bringing the struggle to both and only their love to sustain through it all. Eventually, it is left to her mother to make the decision as to just how far she will go to assure her daughter has a future and a happy one.
Jenkins has an unflinching eye as always when exploring the Black Experience in America, as clear as what that of Spike Lee in his earlier work. There is an honesty there that cannot be denied or frankly, ignored. Though a romantic film, the fact it is filled with such jarring truths take it to a different level, with no Hollywood fantasy to bail the young lovers out and take them to greener pastures. The problem with the film is the pacing, it just seems to drag on and on and on until I was to the point of not caring about the characters! Luckily the performances were good enough that that did not happen.
Regina King seems a good bet for an Oscar nomination, as the actress gives a towering performance, but beyond that, I do not think this film is the towering achievement that ‘Moonlight’ (2016) so clearly was.
The Cinemawala Rating: 2/5
John H. Foote is among the best-known film critics in Canada and has been active as a critic for thirty years.
His career began as co-host, co-producer of the popular movie talk and review program Reel to Real. He left the show after ten years for his first love, print criticism, he longed to write about movies. For two years he wrote for Toronto Life and Fashion Magazine, his work quote in the LA and New York Times, as well as major papers across North America. He was offered a position writing for the internet and has since written for incontention.com, thewrap.com, screenrant.com, awardscircuit.com and most recently thecinemaholic.com. In May 2018 he started his own site Footeandfriendsonfilm.com, which has enjoyed great success its first few months.
Foote was also involved in film education teaching film history and film genre at Trebas Institute before leaving to be Dean of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history and continued his work as a critic.
Foote has written two books, “Clint Eastwood: Evolution of a Filmmaker”, and “Spielberg: American Film Visionary” (due in 2019). His third, “American Cinema in the Seventies” is due for release in 2020.
Through his career, he has interviewed everyone in the business except Jack Nicholson!