Nobody shoots a close-up like director Barry Jenkins. The acclaimed Black auteur, who has only made three feature films to date, has already established himself as one of contemporary cinema’s most notable talents. A large part of this attention comes down to the way Jenkins and his regular cinematographer James Laxton film the human face.
In his last two films, “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the two collaborators have used the camera to get increasingly intimate with their actors. The performers often stare into the lens of Laxton’s camera with stunning intensity, breaking the fourth wall and peering into the audience’s soul. It’s this mixture of emotional directness and distinctive visual thinking that makes his work so special.
Admittedly, Jenkins took some time to grow into his current mastery of cinematic technique. His debut, “Medicine for Melancholy,” opened in 2009 to positive reviews but limited public attention. The film, a romantic drama set over the course of a single day, is a movie of modest ambition and relatively limited achievement. It’s not without its merits, but it feels cheap and rudimentary. Shot in desaturated digital images, it’s clearly the work of an artist who’s working with limited resources and still figuring out the basics of his craft. The movie isn’t bad, but it’s unremarkable.
What is remarkable is the exponential leap forward Jenkins took with “Moonlight,” his following film. This evolution didn’t happen overnight. In the seven years between “Medicine for Melancholy” and “Moonlight," Jenkins took an extended break from feature filmmaking, toiling away in carpentry and advertising — regardless of the particulars of his time off, it was evidently well-spent.
It is not an exaggeration to say that “Moonlight” — based on an unpublished play and released in the fall of 2016 — took the film world by storm. Greeted with breathless praise at its premiere, the movie was subsequently showered with accolades, eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.
All of the acclaim was richly deserved. The movie, a triptych chronicling key moments in the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of the Black and closeted Chiron — played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes in different stages of his life — is a heartrending meditation on identity, race and sexuality.
Each of the film’s three chapters possesses a distinctly cinematic quality that is derived from Jenkins’s command of the medium. “Moonlight” may be based on a play, but there’s nothing stripped-down about the way this material has been translated to the silver screen. Jenkins and Laxton make expressive visual choices, heightening the emotions of certain scenes with unorthodox angles, striking compositions and bold colors.
These bold touches are necessary to the emotional impact of the movie. Chiron undergoes a lot of physical change over the course of the film’s 111 minutes. Still, even as an adult, he remains the same confused boy that’s glimpsed in the opening minutes of the movie.
Jenkins’s directorial choices say what his protagonist can’t. When Chiron stares directly into the camera, everything becomes clear. These strikingly intimate close-ups are worth a thousand words.
With “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Jenkins’s adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, his directorial skill only grows. The film details the pained relationship between Tish — KiKi Layne — a pregnant Black woman, and Fonny — Stephan James — her Black boyfriend who is falsely accused of sexual assault and subsequently imprisoned. The movie, set in the early 1970s, is an unflinching look at the failures of the criminal justice system and devastating effects of institutional racism.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The story, which is told non-linearly, flashes back and forth between scenes of the couple’s early courtship and their ensuing legal battle. This structural decision ensures that the film remains almost equally balanced between romance and tragedy, letting the audience feel the rapture of the central couple’s blooming love just as acutely as the pain of the injustice they’re subjected to. Working with another bold color palette and an achingly beautiful score, courtesy of composer Nicholas Britell, the director uses his craft to enhance both the beautiful and gut-wrenching emotions his protagonists are feeling.
All of the dialogue, mostly repurposed from Baldwin’s novel, is sharp. It’s a testament to the director’s skill, then, that his images are as memorable as that seminal writer’s words. Late in the film, when Tish’s mother — Regina King — stares directly into the camera as Britell’s score swells, it is almost impossible not to be deeply moved.
Jenkins forces viewers to look into the eyes of his actors and fully reckon with the struggles of his Black characters. Film critic Roger Ebert once said that cinema is “a machine that generates empathy.” There’s no better example of this than this director’s work.