Saturday, 9 February 2019

Barry Jenkins’s Sharp and Tender “If Beale Street Could Talk”

I regret not having the time right now for more than these brief notes on Barry Jenkins’s new work, his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk, which is a wondrous movie and a stirring, almost painful experience to watch. Jenkins’s last movie was Moonlight, which will never be forgotten by anyone who’s seen it. After seeing that movie and going back to the theatre a number of times for repeat viewings, I wrote that I was immensely encouraged as I anticipated Jenkins’s coming masterpieces; now, I can tell you that If Beale Street Could Talk seems like the fulfillment of an impossible promise. Jenkins’s style is now instantly recognisable, in the slow, glowing, sensual tactility of his images, and in the deeply resounding, sharp yet opaque emotional resonances they evoke.

I have another regret, which is that I didn’t get to read Baldwin’s novel before seeing the movie. As soon as I heard about its release last year, I went through every library and book shop in the area looking for it, but came up short. Now, besides Jenkins’s cinematic conception and execution, I have much to praise about how the story is set up and the characters placed to lay out particular ideas, and I don’t know where to give credit. I’ve read Baldwin’s essays with great admiration; what we call fervour in other authors is more like fire in Baldwin, and I still remember how right it felt when I read Harold Bloom calling him a direct descendant of the prophetic lineage of Jeremiah. Bloom also memorably wrote, “Unlike Emerson, Baldwin lacks the luxury of detachment, since he speaks … for a sexual minority within a racial minority, indeed for an aesthetic minority among black homosexuals. Ultimately, Baldwin’s dilemma … is that he’s a minority of one, a solitary voice breaking forth against himself from within himself.” By that description, and knowing what Jenkins wrought in Moonlight, it’s difficult to imagine an author whose material would be more apt for Jenkins, who also works to invert the difficulties of outwardness, and bring forth his, his story, and his characters’ full immense inwardness, in all of its vulnerability and splendour.