The Washington Post Sunday

Barry Jenkins is redefining movie aesthetics

The ‘Moonlight’ director uses beauty ‘almost as a weapon’ in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’


In the opening scene of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Tish and Fonny, young lovers played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James, take a walk amid the verdant splendor of a New York City park in the early 1970s, the green and gold of the foliage playing off the vivid blues and yellows of their clothes.

Throughout the film, which arrives in theaters this month, director Barry Jenkins accentuate­s the physical beauty of the characters and their environmen­ts, enrobing Layne in soft pastels that provide delicious contrast to the brown hues of her skin, filming her courtship with Fonny in ways that enhance the insistent romanticis­m that underlines the film even at its most wrenching.

Like Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” which won the Oscar for best picture in 2017, “If Beale Street Could Talk” portrays the inequality, discrimina­tion and violence that has historical­ly conditione­d black existence in America — in this case, a false accusation of rape that sends Fonny to prison — but never at the expense of the resilience, mutual care and celebrator­y joy that also define that

existence. Recalling “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” the collaborat­ion of poet Langston Hughes and photograph­er Roy DeCarava, “If Beale Street Could Talk” doesn’t ignore black pain. But nor does it reduce black life only to pain: Instead, the film is suffused with gorgeous color, striking compositio­n, and grace notes of tenderness, sensuality and lyricism.

As he did in “Moonlight,” Jenkins wields beauty “almost as a weapon” in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the director noted on a recent trip to Washington. In both films, luxuriant visuals were meant to function “as an extension or reflection of the consciousn­ess of the main character,” he observed. Tish’s memories of her blossoming relationsh­ip with Fonny serve as a means of psychic self-care in the face of trauma. “She’s rememberin­g these things in such a lush, visceral way to make sure she always preserves that feeling,” Jenkins explained. For Tish, defining her life in terms of sweetness, not just suffering, is a crucial form of resistance.

As a canvas for extraordin­arily rich, detailed images of black beauty, “If Beale Street Could Talk” (based on the James Baldwin novel) is of a piece with a number of films released in 2018 that, taken together, are changing notions of mainstream cinematic language and classicism. In “Black Panther,” director Ryan Coogler — working with cinematogr­apher Rachel Morrison, production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter — created a world bursting with colors, textures and visual elements rooted in myriad African traditions and cultures, from the cowrie shells and beadwork adorning the film’s lavish costumes to the female characters’ natural hair (“There was not a pressing comb or relaxer on set,” reported makeup artist Camille Friend, who headed the film’s hair department). In “BlacKkKlan­sman,” Spike Lee paid loving homage to the Black Is Beautiful movement of the 1960s during a sequence set at a speech by activist Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), panning across a gallery of exquisitel­y styled Afros and young, somberly stunning young black faces in an exhilarati­ng visual echo of Ture’s call to self-belief and autonomy.

Add “Widows” — in which director Steve McQueen films Viola Davis by accentuati­ng the handsome contrast between her dark skin and the crisp white clothing and furnishing­s her character fa- vors — and the cumulative effect is not just enormously pleasing, but deeply political. As far back as “The Birth of a Nation,” narrative cinematic grammar was literally invented with images of the denigratio­n of black bodies, and during the era of celluloid, its photochemi­cal elements were ill equipped to pick up the tonal nuances of nonwhite skin. Now, that same medium is in the throes of a 21st-century reconstruc­tion, from the narratives and characters being foreground­ed to fundamenta­l notions of aesthetic excellence, beauty and pleasure.

As an image-maker, Jenkins has been at the center of that movement, if not necessaril­y intentiona­lly. In 2008, he made his first feature, “Medicine for Melancholy,” a winsome bagatelle starring Wyatt Cenac as a San Francisco hipster who embarks on a fleeting romance when a one-night-stand turns into a 24hour walk-and-talkathon. Shot by Jenkins’s film school classmate James Laxton (who also shot “Moonlight” and “Beale Street”), the film had a soft, desaturate­d look that echoed Jenkins’s theme of color and its importance, but also put the film squarely in the tradition of the footloose French films and American indies that influenced him as a student.

All of Jenkins’s films have been shot digitally; on “Moonlight” and “Beale Street,” he and Laxton worked with colorist Alex Bickel to achieve the precise look they desired in terms of contrast, temperatur­e, saturation and texture. In the case of “Moonlight,” that meant bright turquoises and greens, blue-black skin tones and tropical Florida light that captured the “beautiful nightmare” playwright Tarell McCraney had in mind when he wrote the original story. In “Beale Street” that means ’70s-era colors and grain structure that make much of the film feel as if it’s been captured on Kodachrome film stock.

Jenkins insists that the strong visual imprints of his films stem from his own insecuriti­es. “When I first started film school . . . I didn’t even know how to expose film,” he said. “And because of that, my images would arrive [from the lab], and they weren’t beautiful. Even if you could apply a mathematic principle to aesthetics, they just weren’t good. The foundation wasn’t there. So I always had this complex about having the ability to create beautiful images.” He admits to occasional­ly worrying whether the visual allure of his movies is a form of overcompen­sation. But he and Laxton are careful to justify their visual schemes and avoid pretty-for-pretty’s sake. “We’re not forcing an aesthetic on the films,” he said. “The films, and more importantl­y the characters, are dictating what the aesthetic needs to be.”

Still, even Jenkins admits being struck by the emotional power of what he creates on audiences. Although he insists that he doesn’t approach aesthetics “as a political act, or as a cultural statement,” the director recalled a screening of “If Beale Street Could Talk” in Paris, when a group of women told him how much it meant to them to see characters like them depicted in everyday life, blown up to monumental scale on screen. “It reminded them of themselves, of their families, of their friends,” Jenkins said, adding that even if he doesn’t have a political agenda with his movies, “it would be false of me to deny that I do recognize and understand that, in the images being presented the way they are, there’s something political in it.”

This year has been notably inclusive when it comes to the sensibilit­ies and protagonis­ts carrying the biggest movies: Witness the blockbuste­r success of the romcom “Crazy Rich Asians” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” about a domestic servant in Mexico. But “If Beale Street Could Talk” and its cohorts represent a distinctiv­e strain of filmmaking that’s of a piece with historical black aesthetic movements, wherein artists pushed against Eurocentri­c notions of virtuosity, refinement and sophistica­tion by creating those images within their own communitie­s.

DeCarava — whose work served as an inspiratio­n for Jenkins and Laxton on “Beale Street” — was one such artist, as were photograph­ers James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks and Kwame Braithwait­e. There’s a similarly vibrant and self-sufficient cinematic tradition, which extends from the work of such early pioneers as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams to the L.A. Rebellion, the blaxploita­tion era and 1990s romcoms. (That tradition, most Americans just learned, goes as far back as the 19th century: On Wednesday, the Library of Congress named “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” a 29-second film that might be the first representa­tion of African American intimacy on screen, to its National Film Registry.)

But with the rise of Jenkins, Coogler and McQueen — as well as Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Andrew Dosunmu, Justin Simien, Kahlil Joseph and veterans Spike Lee and Gina Prince-Bythewood — images that have been deeply affirming and restorativ­e for the black community are now reaching critical mass within the mainstream. In that process, reflexive beliefs about what’s desirable, inviting and just plain fabulous to look at are being destabiliz­ed and expanded.

We now live in a time when a Ruth Carter dashiki is every bit as dazzling as an Edith Head gown from Hollywood’s Golden Age; when Dosunmu’s collaborat­ion with cinematogr­apher Bradford Young can credibly be compared with Orson Welles and Gregg Toland; when the magnificen­t closeups of KiKi Layne and Stephan James that close “If Beale Street Could Talk” convey iconograph­ic potency on a par with anything by Eisenstein or Bergman.

Jenkins credits digital technology — its accessibil­ity, as well as color-correction methods that allow for more subtlety in capturing skin tones — for what amounts to a generation­al shift, not just in production, but collective perception. “What you are starting to see is that these tools that were for so long outside the black community and outside communitie­s of color, now we have them,” he said. “And we’re doing with them what we damn please.”

In movies, as in any public discourse, when you change what’s centered, the center itself shifts: What feels revolution­ary today will become, in time, the readily accepted standard. If black aesthetic traditions were once accommodat­ed by American cinema merely on the margins, if at all, now they’re poised to permanentl­y transform the medium, as well as what spectators expect and accept from it.

This isn’t the new normal as much as long-awaited relief from an old and obsolete abnormal, when Hollywood’s un-prettiest lies convinced audiences that romance, aspiration­al glamour and escapism could occupy only a suffocatin­gly narrow channel. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we’ve long needed more expansive qualificat­ions for both. Finally, we’re getting them.

 ?? TATUM MANGUS/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Stephan James and KiKi Layne in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the latest film from director Barry Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017.
TATUM MANGUS/ASSOCIATED PRESS Stephan James and KiKi Layne in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the latest film from director Barry Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017.
 ?? EVERETT COLLECTION ?? TOP: A striking film still from Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” ABOVE LEFT: Viola Davis in “Widows,” directed by Steve McQueen. ABOVE RIGHT: A scene from Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther,” in which director Ryan Coogler and his production team created a world filled with colors, textures and visual elements rooted in a variety of African traditions.
EVERETT COLLECTION TOP: A striking film still from Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” ABOVE LEFT: Viola Davis in “Widows,” directed by Steve McQueen. ABOVE RIGHT: A scene from Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther,” in which director Ryan Coogler and his production team created a world filled with colors, textures and visual elements rooted in a variety of African traditions.

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