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Barry Jenkins Has Mastered Romance Onscreen

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Last night during drinks with a friend we were singing the praises of If Beale Street Could Talk, and I declared, “If Barry Jenkins directed the Fifty Shades movies they would have actually been sexy.” The statement stuck in my head because when I look back at Jenkins’ two movies (Beale Steet and Moonlight) the moments that I always am able to remember are the ones that showcase emotion: rage, longing, and love.

Barry Jenkins knows what love should look like, what longing should look like, and what intimate moments during sex are important to see. Chiron’s hand gripping the sand is more sensual and intimate than showing the actual sex act itself. Watching Moonlight as well as the way it ends with Chiron and Kevin in a tender embrace, after so much playfulness and teasing between the two, was like this giant exhale. It is the cinematic version of a climax because of the feeling of gratification afterward was so powerful.

Romance is hard to put on camera and in adapting If Beale Street Could Talk, even since it is an adaptation of a book, Jenkins had to take the very lived-in relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) and sell it to audiences who’d read or been familiar with the source material.

While we do get Tish’s voice-over, it is paired with the actors bringing to life the gestures of love that makes you believe in the story between the two. Fonny speaking to someone, but never for a moment letting go of Tish’s hand. The way Tish slowly realizes Fonny’s affections through a series of gestures and looks which leads to the eventual moment where they make love.

As highlighted in Beandrea July’s piece in Women and Hollywood, July explains how the camera doesn’t objectify Tish’s body in the scenes but highlights her pleasure and the physical weight of the lovemaking:

“We see Tish’s passionate facial expression, her fingers grasping Fonny’s back. Fonny is giving her his full weight, and they look glued together. We hear the pleasure in her breathing as she climaxes. This is about her and Fonny’s connection as soul mates, yes — but it’s also about Tish experiencing sexual pleasure and her emergence into womanhood.”

Jenkins understands the visual language of love and frames the camera to highlight all the things that make those moments special. He also knows how to frame the intimacy around the lead. From Chiron to Tish, we see their romantic partner the way they do, through a gaze of love, longing, and adoration. Jenkins makes those feelings so palpable that you as the audience get so wrapped up in the tension that you want to be in those moments, not for sex, but to be loved as absolutely.

Going back to my jest, the reason why I feel like Jenkins’ sense of romance and intimacy is so necessary for films like Fifty Shades (sans the terrible source material) is because it’s supposed to be about Ana’s gaze and Ana’s pleasure, but the films themselves don’t know how to emphasize her pleasure and her needs in writing or cinematography.

Jenkins’ romantic vision is so important because it captures the universality of love without fetishizing it or hyper-sexualizing it, but does so using black bodies and therefore making some of the most unloved people portray some of the truest definitions of the emotion on screen.

What can I do to drive away
Remembrance from my eyes? for they have seen,
Aye, an hour ago, my brilliant Queen!
Touch has a memory.

Keats 

Go see If Beale Street Could Talk guys,.

(image: Annapurna Pictures)

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