If you have ever owned a Sega Genesis or strolled into an arcade, one of the games that is guaranteed to be in the rotation is NBA Jam. It’s a 2-on-2 basketball game with NBA players that features highlight reel dunks that defy the laws of physics. In the classic video game, if a player makes three baskets in a row, he is considered “on fire.” The player has unlimited turbo, increased shooting percentage, and a somewhat invincibility factor. When a player is on fire, they are practically unstoppable.
Right now, Barry Jenkins is on fire thanks to his latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk. This film marks Jenkins’ first film since the award-winning, Moonlight, which won three Oscars including Best Picture Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk film follows the relationship between Clementine “Tish” (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) in 1970s Harlem. Tish and Fonny are determined to make it in the city despite the racial prejudice facing African Americans at the time. Fonny is pregnant and prepared to marry Fonny when tragedy strikes the duo. Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman by a racist cop and thrown into prison as he awaits a trial. It’s up to Fonny, her mother Sharon (Regina King), and the rest of her family to prove Fonny’s innocence and remove him from prison before the baby is born.
One of Barry Jenkins’s best traits as a director (and there are A LOT) is his ability to capture emotion. Jenkins has a keen eye for facial expressions and his closeups leave the viewer in awe. Jenkins knows how to let moments breathe and understands that words do not need to be exchanged to express emotion. A closeup of a distressed actor’s face to show sadness and frustration is far more powerful to the viewer than dialogue. The cinematography and script are spectacular and that’s all because of Jenkins. It’s this attention to detail that pushes Jenkins near the top of greatest living directors.
The acting performances are heartfelt and emotional lead by the strong chemistry between Layne and James. However, the two performances I want to focus on are from Regina King and Bryan Tyree Henry. Both of these actors happen to have two of the most powerful scenes of the movies. King plays Tish’s mother, Sharon, a strong, loving mother who won’t stop until her daughter is reunited with the love of her life. King decides to make matters into her own hands by flying to Puerto Rico to find the woman who claimed that Fonny raped her. King is determined and hopeful that the woman will see her side and renounce Fonny as her rapist, but upon their meeting, that hope quickly dissolves into defeat. The heartbreaking scene is a showcase of King’s raw power and delivery, which will lead her to an Oscar win in February.
For what it’s worth, it’s hard to find an actor who had a better year than Brian Tyree Henry. Between Atlanta and Widows, that would’ve been a successful year, but If Beale Street Could Talk was the cherry on top. It baffles my mind that Henry has not received more award’s consideration for his performance. Henry plays Daniel, one of Fonny’s friends who was recently paroled. In the scene of the movie, Fonny and Daniel are drinking around the dinner table when they begin to discuss prison life. Daniel’s charm and bravado quickly dissolves to fear and abandonment as his face tells the horror of prison and how it can make a man feel inadequate.
Jenkins once again directed a beautiful and tragic love story that will leave you in tears. Not many directors are capable of channeling emotions and facial reactions as good as Jenkins. Jenkins love story to black America will undoubtedly go down as one of the best films of 2018.
Let me know what you thought on Twitter @danny_giro.