My favorite moment of any Barry Jenkins movie happens in his junior picture “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018), about a quarter of the way in. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) exit a nice restaurant where they’ve just received special treatment from one of Fonny’s old pals, Pedrocito (Diego Luna). The couple step out of the restaurant, but Fonny lingers, probably to land a parting dig at Pedro. As she does throughout the whole film, Tish narrates the moment in a tender tone:
“I had never seen Fonny outside the world in which I moved,” she says. “Perhaps it was only now I was able to see him with me; because, even though he was turned away laughing, he was holding my hand.”
At first the camera singles her out, but as she nears the turn of the phrase it cuts to reveal Fonny’s hand firmly wound around hers. Even as the rest of his body is turned away, this is where he wants to be.
I would never reduce a filmmaker’s work down to one theme (even if that filmmaker has only made three movies), but what I’ve found most impressive about Jenkins’ work is his ability to create a consistent visual language — his movies define love almost solely in visual terms. Pretentious as the cliche may be, I think if filmmaking is defined as “writing with light,” Jenkins is one of the most genuine working filmmakers.
That moment in “Beale Street” works without Tish’s narration, for the director has already established in this film (as well as his previous work) that true love is about connection. When those of us acquainted with Jenkins’ work think about our experience when watching his movies, doubtless we think of specific shots; of these, Jenkins’ single shot is chief. He does it in “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008), “Moonlight” (2016) and “Beale Street” — a character stands right in front of the camera gazing directly at the lens and, spiritually, at the audience on the other side. The shot is an invitation to stop and consider characters, to get to know them, one at a time.
How can these lonely frames define love as connection? Does connection even matter if we constantly see people by themselves? To answer the positive: Jenkins takes pains, not so much to explore the intricacies of every character, but to argue that knowing another person — or, at least, taking the time to know someone — is crucial.
Jenkins does not humanize characters — he lets them exist as the humans they already are. (“Humanizing” characters is really an absurd thing to commend a director for. Those characters were human before the camera got there. It’s how one interprets that humanity that matters.) In those single shots, characters have no prop, usually only a static background — nothing but themselves. The result is a powerful assertion that the person standing smack in the middle of our screen is worth at least a few seconds of our undivided attention simply because they are human.
Really, the fact that Jenkins feels the need to so blatantly tell us, straight up, to pay attention to someone, says less about the characters and more about how we’ve been conditioned as an audience to expect rapid movement in the films we watch — that’s why these portrait shots feel “disruptive” to the plot. Like a novelist taking up a page to detail a landscape with elegant language, Jenkins uses his camera to patiently detail bodies, faces and eyes.
When you’ve established each character as complex and powerful in and of themselves, each film becomes a journey (for the audience and the other characters) to understand another person. Jenkins’ films aren’t always so simple and so joyful as a shot of intertwined hands, though.
The most complicated relationship in “Moonlight” is the one between Chiron and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris). When Chiron is a boy (Alex Hibbert), Paula yells at him with all her might — “Don’t look at me!” Yet, never in this recurring moment are the characters seen in the same frame. Both Chiron and Paula are laid bare by the single shot; it’s as if Paula feels the implications of being framed by herself. She is being judged by her son and by us. In a Jenkins project, to stare is to know. Paula knows her imperfections, and she doesn’t want anyone else to call her out, let alone her son.
Nevertheless, Jenkins implores the audience to understand — Paula’s coarse shouting is constantly replayed for us so that we can relive that moment with Chiron, struggling alongside him to be reconciled with its cruelty. Decades later, the mother and son meet for a final gut-wrenching conversation. Eventually, they are literally pressed together into the frame, Chiron embracing his frail mother, wrapping almost his whole body around her.
In a Jenkins film, the worst fate anyone can suffer is never sharing the frame, never connecting, left perpetually naked for the audience to judge (see Officer Bell in “Beale Street”). No matter how cruel Paula was to Chiron, he knows, sooner or later, they must connect. They are mother and son. They cannot stand in separate frames forever.
Just as we stare and evaluate each face presented to us in these portrait shots, Jenkins’ characters themselves are constantly struggling to evaluate their identities. Chiron, chief among Jenkins’ searchers, is tossed about like ocean waves as almost every person in his life has a say in who he is or who he is supposed to be. The most heart-wrenching shot in “Moonlight” is one of young Chiron alone in a bathtub. He has discovered both Paula and his surrogate father Juan (Mahershala Ali) to be inadequate authorities on the question of identity. Chiron sits in the tub, looking around, looking up as if for Divine revelation; the moment marks his life for worse — he remains convinced he is all alone.
Hope for Chiron, Tish, Fonny — and in “Medicine for Melancholy,” Micah and Joanne — comes in romance, a romance with someone who actually comprehends them. Tish and Fonny have known each other since childhood (“bone of bone, flesh of flesh” they call each other, even before marriage). Chiron is drawn to Kevin because he’s the only person with whom Chiron expresses the emotions he keeps hidden from everyone else.
In Jenkins’ debut film, Joanne is dating a white guy we don’t see during her day with Micah. She fits so well with Micah, though, because he knows who she really is; he even takes her to the Museum of the African Diaspora to awaken her to her historical identity. The lovely Micah knows how to woo her and show her a good time, while the implication is that her boyfriend is aloof to all things romantic.
In “Medicine for Melancholy,” we spend a lot of time in Micah’s apartment, listening to the couple share secrets, fears and political concerns. If the highest show of friendship, trust and love in Jenkins’ movies is to welcome someone into your frame, the audience is given the great privilege in all of these films to enter private spaces like this one and fully grasp who these people are.
If Jenkins’ single shots constantly reinforce the complexity of individual identities, then, quite naturally, it is very thrilling when two such people connect and the director allows us to see it.
So if holding hands is that exciting in all Jenkins’ movies, a first kiss, needless to say, means everything.
Isa Uggetti is a junior writing about film. His column, “All the World’s a Screen,” ran every other Monday.