Give Barry Jenkins another Oscar
Nobody likes dynasties. It's not fun to watch the same team win every year, be it the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, or the Golden State Warriors. The same is true at the Academy Awards: Who wants to see Alejandro G. Iñárritu win Best Director with The Revenant literally the year after he won for Birdman? No one.
That being said, I propose an exception to this rule: Director Barry Jenkins, who memorably won Best Picture in 2016 for Moonlight, should win again in 2018 for his follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk. Based on the novel of the same name, Jenkins' Beale Street relies, at times almost verbatim, on author James Baldwin's prose, but it's in the moments between the dialogue and voice-overs that Jenkins comes away with one of the most intimate, tender, and powerful films of the year.
Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk introduces actress KiKi Layne as 19-year-old Tish, whose 22-year-old boyfriend and father of her child, Fonny (Stephan James), has been sent to jail after being framed for rape. Through parallel stories — one following Tish and Fonny's lush and intoxicating love story, the other following life after Fonny has been put in jail — Jenkins has created a work even more stunning than his gorgeous sophomore feature, Moonlight. While that film sometimes relied too heavily on its lyric images at the neglect of its storytelling, Beale Street brings back cinematographer James Laxton to capture the Harlem of the 1970's, while using Baldwin's work as its spine. The result is magnificent.
Leaning on Baldwin's prose, the script is certainly lovely, which makes it all the more remarkable that it's not dialogue or voice-overs that stand out in Beale Street. Jenkins' frequent use of close-ups — in particular, symmetrical head-on shots — allow Layne and James' acting chops to shine, and cannot be pegged to any one line of Baldwin's. In wider shots, such as Fonny's family arriving at Tish's apartment, a scene that is plucked directly out of the novel, Jenkins gives his actors just enough rein to make the moment their own: Ernestine's (Teyonah Parris) withering acknowledgment of Fonny's sister "Adrian" earns deserved guffaws. Actress Regina King, as Tish's mother Sharon, also gives one of the best performances of the year, including a nearly-wordless moment of despair in Puerto Rico when she clutches Tish and Fonny's photo like a prayer card.
Throughout its two hour runtime, Beale Street remains highly stylized — Academy voters, please shower costume designer Caroline Eselin with Oscars — but not to the point of being twee. Whatever beauty there is in wallpaper swans and paisley dresses is counterbalanced by archival photos, including Gordon Parks' magnificent “Ellen Crying, Harlem, New York.” The black-and-white pictures of real African-American lives, which appear at several moments throughout the movie, are initially accompanied by Baldwin's warning that children in Harlem "had been told that they weren't worth s--t and everything they saw around them proved it."
Despite this grounding — this could have really happened, we're made to imagine — there's an intentional construction to Jenkins' version of New York. Everywhere you look you will notice soft contrasts of blue and yellows, and occasionally the resulting green. This visual control helps build the story as something almost fairytale-like, while also being subtle enough to not get in the way of the narrative or trivialize miscarried justice.
Not a detail gets overlooked, including the soundtrack, an incredible achievement from Nicholas Britell, who also scored Moonlight. In Beale Street, Jenkins' use of music has improved even more, including his restraint; during the scene when Tish loses her virginity, the record that Fonny put on comes to an end, spinning silently across the room from the new lovers, allowing the moment to shake its theatrical drama for a quiet pause of intimacy. Perhaps the most powerful musical direction of all is the use of Billy Preston's "My Country 'Tis of Thee" closing out the film, a defiant and ironic link to the injustices of today.
Beale Street is an improvement on Moonlight, and therefore at least as deserving of a Best Picture Oscar (a directing one, too, while we're at it). Academy voters, though, might hesitate, Vulture writes in its 2019 predictions, observing that a film that hinges on a false rape accusation — however empathetically handled by Jenkins — might not sit right in the political climate.
There is also the question of its stiff competition. Oscar heavyweight Alfonso Cuarón makes a compelling choice for Best Picture with his beautiful Mexico City-set period piece Roma, and there will certainly be buzz around the critically acclaimed fan-favorite A Star Is Born. Dark horses like Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave follow-up Widows and Peter Farrelly's Green Book, which picked up the top awards at the Toronto Film Festival and from the National Board of Review, could also shuffle Beale Street back on voters' ballots. Plus, there is again that question of dynasty; with Jenkins having won the 2016 award, the Academy might seek to reward a film with a director who hasn't recently received film's top honor, or ever.
While he may not be the favorite going in, though, Jenkins unequivocally deserves to win Best Picture. If Beale Street Could Talk is what happens when everything in a movie comes together: the source material, the actors and actresses, the set designers, the music. Whether the Academy recognizes that or not, Beale Street is a treasure.