*NOTICE* THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SLIGHT SPOILERS
Every so often, a work of art catches your eye and makes you take another look. What’s interesting about this phenomena is that even if you were to find distaste in the art after your second glance, an inherent appreciation for its provocation is realized. Then, there are other times, and these are the rarest: a work of art encapsulating your spirit, enhancing every emotion imaginable and unimaginable, along with two conflicting senses of surrealism and actuality. I think that, in certain ways, Barry Jenkins writes and directs his films so that the viewer experiences the latter situation.
Barry Jenkins rose to critical acclaim with his 2016 film Moonlight, a story about a young black man and his journey to self-discovery from a socioeconomically troubled part of Miami, Florida. Jenkins chronicled the protagonist, Chiron, and his psyche through three critical stages of his life; childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. With this work, Jenkins did what few filmmakers could: create a politically, socially, and economically captivating work that rose to both critical acclaim and shined in award season, winning the coveted Best Picture category at the 2017 Oscars.
This past Christmas, Jenkins’ second major motion picture, If Beale Street Could Talk, exemplifies Jenkins ability to capture, and help formulate, the cinema zeitgeist. If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story, based on the novel by James Baldwin, about a man who is wrongfully imprisoned and his pregnant fiancé’s quest for justice. It is set in Harlem, and throughout the film, Jenkins makes the aura around the neighborhood abundantly clear: avoid the police. At certain intervals in the film, breath-taking and daunting black-and-white photos of police brutality, economic deprivation, and turmoil are shown. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins simultaneously critiques the situation for African-Americans in the United States while splendidly highlighting the strength, grace, and sacrifice that many families endure for loved ones. Jenkins wants the viewer to understand that, in 1970s Harlem, some of the only fulfillment people had was camaraderie and family intimacy. This is a story of love, but also belief and sacrifice.
Through If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has solidified himself as one of the most direct and personal storytellers in cinema today. His stories reach deep within, not because of their relatabiltiy, but because of their understanding. Jenkins, along with many new filmmakers, conveys a political, social, economic, and familial message in his films, and without haste, paints a frighteningly accurate picture of societies and their troubles. That is why we will talk about a “Barry Jenkins film” for years to come; he realizes the potential for advocacy in all art.