Dave Franco, Stephan James, director Barry Jenkins and KiKi Layne (L-R) on the set of “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Photo Credit: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Releasing, Inc.).
Understanding the Plight of Beale Street Natives
Filmmaker Barry Jenkins just gets it.
The director behind the Academy Award winning film “Moonlight” knows how to marry the art of avant-garde filmmaking with emotional storytelling that captivates film experts and movie novices at the same time.
Barry Jenkins’ films contain politics and social issues.
But the films also represent love.
Additionally, the films represent coming of age tales that many can relate to.
His films deal with pealing of the masks of childhood naiveté and coming to terms with how harsh and brutal life in America can be for those that come from a darker hue.
And two of Barry Jenkins’ films thus far (“Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”) represent that metaphorical street created by the late novelist James Baldwin in which all African-Americans come from.
“Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born,” Baldwin once explained. “Every Black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the Black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. It is left to the reader to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.”
The film “If Beale Street Could Talk” begins with that aforementioned quote from Baldwin about the origins of every African-American.
Barry Jenkins’s characters from Chiron in “Moonlight” to Fonny (Stephan James) in “If Beale Street Could Talk” basically dance to the same drumbeat on that metaphorical boulevard in the African-American community.
Both characters are Americans.
But they feel like outsiders in America.
Chiron even feels like an outsider within the relative sanctuary of Beale Street, surrounded by other residents of Beale Street who look just like him but do not necessarily act like him.
But Fonny wants more than to exist on Beale Street.
He wants to realize his dreams so that he can provide a better life for his soul mate Tish and himself.
However, when he ventures out past the Beale Street of Harlem, he finds himself unwanted by a society than can only see his skin color and not his humanity.
And unfortunately, not much has changed on Beale Street since Baldwin’s father walked the street.
Not much has changed on Beale Street since Armstrong played his horn on the side of the street.
And not much has changed on Beale Street, according to Jenkins, since Fonny and Tish walked hand in hand hoping for a better future and for the ideal romance.
“I don’t think it has changed,” Jenkins told RegalMag.com. “I think it’s very applicable to today. I think over the course of human history, in the very least American history, any place that Black folks have found a way to build communities, build enclaves, contains a Beale Street. And that’s why I wanted to lead with a quote. And I also feel that’s why the book, published 45 years ago, is still so relevant today.”
The relevance of Jenkins’ themes and characters make his films so endearing to his fans.
Furthermore, Barry Jenkins has the storytelling capabilities that make those that do not understand the plight of his characters more empathetic to their struggles.
His characters might not represent each moviegoer.
But each moviegoer knows certain characters in his films.
In “If Beale Street Could Talk,” many people will relate to the character Tish, played by newcomer KiKi Layne.
Many people know of an unwed and pregnant teenager who has to bring a child into this world without the support of a father.
Many people know of the shame that unplanned pregnancies can bring to a family, especially if the family has strong moral connections with the church.
People know how hard it is to raise a child even with two supportive parents and four supportive grandparents.
But when that support is fractured, how does that broken home impact the upbringing of that child?
Many people in the African-American community know of people who have suffered through an unjust incarceration for a crime that they did not commit.
As an African-American man, especially, it is hard to thrive in an American system that is set up to hold them back.
But with a criminal record, life for an African-American man can become unbearable.
How does the stress of life impact that person’s relationships with others?
And how does that person keep a positive attitude when they constantly find themselves surrounded by negativity.
One of the most powerful scenes in “If Beale Street Could Talk” takes place around Fonny and Tish’s dinner table as Fonny and his friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, “Widows”) discuss life and what each other has been up to over the last few years.
Daniel has recently returned home from a stint in prison for a crime he did not commit.
He warns Fonny about the traps that America has set for people that look like them.
And Fonny straight up explains to Daniel that America hates n*****s.
“I love conversations between people that are about one thing on the surface but very quickly we realize it’s about something different,” said Barry Jenkins.
“There is a 10-12 minute scene between Daniel and Fonny, and Brian was the actor who could best span the spectrum as the guts spill out. It speaks to an experience that I have with Black men I know; whenever you meet up it’s ‘How you doing, man?’ and whether you are good or not the default answer is ‘I’m good.’ But if you are together in a window of time and if you talk long enough—maybe over a cigarette, maybe over a beer—slowly I’m good will reveal itself for what it really is.
“Over the course of this scene, we take the audience through those feelings, as externalized by Brian, of what is at stake for the characters—and Stephan as Fonny has to not see it coming. The world tells us we shouldn’t show to one another, but two men do: to me, this is peak Baldwin.”
But it is how Barry Jenkins paints the portraits of his scenes that separate him from the pack of new filmmakers.
Sure, many filmmakers can place a spotlight on the plight of African-Americans.
But very few do it in the lyrical and artistic way that Jenkins does.
His movies are like reading a novel.
His movies are like analyzing an exquisite piece of visual art.
His work is like listening to the great musicians of jazz and the classical genre.
His films just get to us.
And we totally get him, his art and his message.