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Seeing the Moonlight on Beale Street: Appreciating the Sensibilities of Barry Jenkins

It doesn’t take long when watching either Moonlight (2016) or If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) to realize that the director of these films has a very unique sensibility for the human condition. Enter Barry Jenkins, the director and the driving force behind both of these films. They share a very finite understanding of what it means to be human and what we are all looking for in the world. Jenkins broke onto the scene with 2016’s hit film Moonlight, which would go on to earn Best Supporting Actor credentials for Mahershala Ali and would ultimately win Best Picture at the Oscars. Just a couple years later Jenkins would return to bring a James Baldwin story into the limelight. With If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins further expanded upon the personal reflection that he presented with his Best Picture winner.

Moonlight‘s release was a phenomenon. In it, we saw a young boy grow into the very thing he so despised, while also retaining some of the characteristics which defined him as the exiled kid in both grade school and high school. Jenkins perfectly portrays Chiron’s character in his adolescent years, setting him up for a powerful absolution when he’s a more established young man. What Jenkins gets at in the final scenes of Moonlight would seamlessly carry over to his next film in If Beale Street Could Talk. The final scene of Moonlight show’s Chiron traveling off to Kevin’s restaurant as he is hopeful of rekindling the shared loved they briefly had in high school. Chiron shows up to Kevin (Andre Holland)’s restaurant and they share a deeply heartfelt meal over their past troubles and triumphs as a pair of young men that found comfort in each other.

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Trevante Rhodes and André Holland in Moonlight.

The tone of the diner scene is carried over directly into the next film from Jenkins, in which the focal point of the story is based around the relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). From the beginning it is established that the love shared between them is something sacred. The two characters find in each other a level of solace that had previously been impossible for them.

At some level, the two films from Jenkins act on opposite planes in order to achieve the same basic emotional catharsis. With Moonlight, Jenkins positions the totality of a character’s being to show how he would find love in the security of another man. Beale Street, however, wears its love story on its sleeve from the beginning, highlighting how the love between its two lead characters affects everyone else in their lives. In Moonlight, the characters are fighting to achieve love; in Beale Street, the characters are fighting to preserve it. For Jenkins, the struggle for love is universal. He positions his characters in a way that the audience can’t help but feel for them and be sympathetic to their experience.

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KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo in If Beale Street Could Talk.

Within just a few minutes of the Jenkins’ films, the viewer is immediately swept up into the plight of their characters. Whether it be Chiron fighting to overcome the troubling oppression of his childhood or Fonny and Tish struggling to stay afloat in the wake of their burgeoning love and family with the oppression facing them in a racist America, Jenkins’ characters are deeply sympathetic. He is able to position his characters in both films in a way that the viewer can’t help but become incredibly attached to them and wrapped up in their human experience.

It goes without saying that Barry Jenkins is one of our most intimate and relatable directors working today. The accomplishments of both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk have positioned Jenkins as one of the more sought after working directors. In his movies, we appreciate a sensibility for the human condition and the love that we as a people live to express. Love is the emotion that drives us all; Jenkins understands that, he establishes it in his work, and he creates stories and characters that drive his empathy for the human experience forward. With Jenkins, we can look forward to many movies in the future that will push forward our appreciation for what it means to be human, and more importantly look forward to films that elevate its characters to a higher level of sensuality and existential acceptance. It is safe to presume that we can count on Barry Jenkins to bring the idea of love and compassion to our screens for years to come.

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