Director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) has demonstrated so far over his short career that film can still be thought of as art and an experience. What I mean by that is that the guy makes films which make you feel, think and illustrates the human experience. Many films just look to entertain. And I might mean most when I say many. But that is a debate for another time.
Based on James Baldwin’s (I Am Not Your Negro) 1974 novel of the same name, on the surface this is a love story set in the 70s in Harlem. If you look a little deeper you see the care and detail involved. Starting with the cinematography by James Laxton (Camp X-Ray, Tusk). Everything is shot in an almost loving way. Gauzy and cozy despite the sometimes drab rooms the story takes place in. Next up is the score by Nicholas Britell (The Big Short, Battle of the Sexes). Jazzy. Emotion packed. Wonderful! So good and moving at times it is basically a character in the film. Due to all the details being paid attention to and humanity instilled in the film, Jenkins manages to make something that is taking place on a huge screen in a theatre feel very intimate. Not easy. Not often accomplished.
Another accomplishment is that it cements Barry Jenkins as one of the film world’s foremost storytellers. Everything he takes on is done with such attention and care that you cannot help but love it. Become invested in the story he is telling. Everything he does has a feel of poetry to it. It is a story which is alive and yet understated. Though he is the man with all the power (as the director) Jenkins manages to take a backseat, or at least make you feel that. He is not the star. The story remains the primary reason we are here. While he remains in the shadows he pushes African Americans and their stories out into the spotlight.
Fonny (Stephan James – Race, Selma) and Tish (Kiki Layne – first feature film) have known each other since they were children. They grew up together. Took baths together as children. Have always been in each others’ lives. So, it really was a shock to no one, except maybe Tish, when they fell in love. Fonny is 22-years-old while Tish is 19. He works in a kitchen, but wants to make a living as a sculptor and she works in a department store. Young, poor, but in love.
Readying themselves to move into the next phase of their lives, Fonny and Tish are knocked off their feet when he is falsely accused of raping a woman. This happens around the same time that Tish finds out she is pregnant. Now Tish and her family, who fully support her and Fonny, fight to raise the money required to prove Fonny’s innocence. Tish wants this to happen before the baby is born.
Watching the film moves you through a variety of emotions. You will find yourself pained, moved, but ultimately hopeful. All this without feeling cheaply manipulated. A celebration of love and the power of it in all forms – romantic and family. Never for one moment will it feel as painful as most romantic films made today. We see a realistic picture of love with all its trials and demands. Real love demands sacrifice. It is not all hearts and flowers.
All this is accomplished because Jenkins pays hommage to the little moments in life. Think back on your life and you will realize that often what has made the biggest impact are small things. Things that sometimes go unnoticed. Not grand gestures. Rather a collection of seemingly innocuous things. Jenkins has made us aware of looks and quiet gestures. They get their moment in the sun. All done very beautifully. The way the film is shot and the music provide all the backdrop that the wonderful dialogue needs to elevate it to a film that will leave a lasting impression.
The film also should be applauded for its handling of the portrayal of black men. This is not the one sided characterization we have grown accustomed to. We get to see them as fathers, husbands, lovers, and friends. In other words, as human beings just like us, not as caricatures. Complex, living, breathing humans. Tied to this is Jenkins’ handling of the racism involved in the story. It is there. Throughout most of what happens to Fonny, Tish and most black characters in the film. But it is not the focal point. Love is. Love between the young couple and the love between Tish and her family members, mother Sharon (Regina King – Ray, Boyz in the Hood), father Joseph (Colman Domingo – Lincoln, The Birth of a Nation) and older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris – from television’s Empire). Love can get you through anything.