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The genius of writer-director Barry Jenkins’s film-making lies in his ability to take a story grounded in very specific circumstances and, through close attention to detail, make it universal. In the Oscar-winning Moonlight, he conjured a portrait of a young man from a hardscrabble, drug-riddled Miami neighbourhood finding harsh beauty in the precise minutiae of his protagonist’s life. Like all great coming-of-age movies, Moonlight struck a chord as timeless as that evoked by Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups, George Lucas’s American Graffiti or Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Now, Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1970s novel becomes a heart-stopping cinematic love story, told with a tough but tender truthfulness that left me weeping and swooning. It’s a terrific film, as sinewy as it is sensuous, interweaving stark social-realist themes of prejudice, oppression and imprisonment with a poetic evocation of love, loss and, ultimately, transcendence.
“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” states the opening quotation from Baldwin, citing “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy”. From such boldly declarative beginnings, Jenkins moves to a gently swirling overhead shot of two seemingly shy young lovers walking together, the sound of sustained elegiac strings accompanying their footsteps. “You ready for this?” asks 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), to which Fonny (Stephan James) replies: “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life…”
It’s a scene trembling with promise and expectation, full of cinema’s dreamy ability to capture the elusive quintessence of love. But that ethereal sense of promise comes crashing down to earth on the next beat as we hear Tish’s voice telling us she hopes that “nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass…”
Like so many young African American men, Fonny (aka Alonzo) has been arrested and jailed on a trumped-up charge, following a run-in with a grudge-bearing white cop (Ed Skrein, oozing menace). Tish is pregnant and promises Fonny he’ll be out and back in Harlem before their baby is born. But while Tish’s family, led by protective matriarch Sharon (Oscar-favourite Regina King) and down-to-earth Joseph (Colman Domingo), are accepting and proud, Fonny’s God-bothering mother (a fearsome Aunjanue Ellis) responds with hostility and spite, blaming Tish for her son’s supposed fall from grace. Can the warring clans put aside their differences for the sake of the next generation?
Jenkins cites the phrase “Love brought you here” as his favourite line from Baldwin’s novel, and those words resonate throughout this rich and vibrantly melancholic film. While the bond between Tish and Fonny is spine-tingling (a discreetly framed love scene rivals the intimacy of the love scene in Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now), the strength of their connection is echoed in the dynamics of their extended families. Layne and James are perfectly cast as the young couple, but the power of their performances is matched by supporting players such as Teyonah Parris, in firecracker form as Tish’s older sister Ernestine, and Brian Tyree Henry (so brilliant in Widows) as close friend Daniel Carty, who has similarly suffered injustice.
As for Regina King, her brilliantly modulated performance is a masterclass in physical understatement. One moment stands out – as Tish sits in the kitchen, preparing to tell her mother that she is pregnant, James Laxton’s camera adopts Tish’s point of view, watching Sharon from behind. “Mamma… ,” says Tish, tentatively, and even before she turns to face us, an almost imperceptible movement of King’s neck and shoulders tells us that Sharon knows exactly what her daughter is about to say.
As before, Jenkins invites the audience to look directly into his characters’ eyes, highlighting the sense of connection by stretching and slowing time, taking his lead from the “chopped-and-screwed” beats that have long fascinated this most musical film-maker. Just as the narrative shuffles past and present like cards in a dexterously dealt hand, so Jenkins invites us to focus on the moment, turning seconds into minutes with sensual slow-mo.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Britell’s subtly counterintuitive score brushes up against classic vinyl cuts (the ritual of putting on a record is evoked more than once), creating a musical mosaic that both anchors the drama in the here and now while expanding it beyond the specifics of time and place. The result is another mesmerising and wholly immersive experience from a film-maker whose love of the medium of cinema – and fierce compassion for Baldwin’s finely drawn characters – shines through every frame.
Source: The Guardian
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