Barry Jenkins has followed up his 2016 masterpiece Moonlight with the same artful poetry. Through its accomplished blend of moving musical score, striking cinematography, and impeccable ensemble acting, If Beale Street Could Talk captures all the sincerity of falling in love. It is impossible not to get swept away by this bittersweet poem about the power of optimism and community in an impossibly unjust environment.
Director Barry Jenkins returns to the big screen with his first film since his 2016 best-picture winning masterpiece Moonlight. While that coming of age drama revolving around the lifelong quest for identity was so powerful in part due to its exploration of sexuality in the context of the urban working class, its biggest strength was in the deeply personal poetic nature by which the film was told. In his follow up, Jenkins has adapted the 1970s novel If Beale Street Could Talk from influential social critic and novelist James Baldwin. It comes as no surprise to learn that the screenplay was written during the same time that Moonlight was written, as Jenkins has created another mesmerizingly emotional tale of romance and sincerity.
This love story set in 1970s Harlem quickly introduces us to Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), a 19 and 22-year-old who are deeply in love and eager to start their life together. Unfortunately, this plan is put to a screeching halt as it is revealed that Fonny has been incarcerated after being wrongly accused of raping a woman. On top of this, Tish discovers that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child and receives contrasting reactions from her more understanding mother (Regina King) and father (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s devoutly religious parents when she expresses her intention of keeping the baby. Eventually, both families put aside their differences and decide to fight to clear Fonny of the charges in the hope that he can be home with Tish before she delivers their child.
The film surprisingly lays all of the facts of the situation out quickly, leaving everything aside from the ultimate outcome of the trial out in the open. The majority of the story instead focuses on a multitude of intimate conversations between different members of the River and Hunt clans as well as the romantic highs and devastating lows of Tish and Fonny’s relationship before and after the arrest. This is all done with eloquently lyrical narration from Tish as she expresses her sage and tragically accurate perceptions of the impossible circumstances African Americans faced during this period in time. The recitations from KiKi Layne lend the story a poetic sensibility, making the film feel more akin to a deeply personal work of literature providing If Beale Street Could Talk with a strongly affecting sentimentality.
For a film depicting such an unsettling subject matter of racial discrimination from law enforcement, the film is remarkably lush. This gorgeous cinematography artfully compliments the story’s theme of finding beauty even in the most difficult of situations. The stylistic duality is most evident in scenes such as when Tish describes her experience as a sales rep at a high-end perfume store, explaining in vivid detail how the different shoppers would treat her. While the scene is understandably heartbreaking as we see the way Tish is treated as nothing more than an object from most of the prospective customers, it was simultaneously presented with such flair that you can’t help but be struck by the beauty of the visual storytelling on display.
Aside from succeeding on this technical level, much of the film’s power is derived from the impeccable performances from the entire cast. While KiKi Layne and Stephan James carry most of the film, I found the supporting family members to be a joy to watch and at times wished we had spent more time examining their distinct personalities. The uproarious scene early on in the film in which the entire family is reacting to news that culminates in a surprising resolution is pitch perfect in how it allows every performer to shine, and I was saddened to realize there weren’t more of these types of scenes. As an aside Regina King has been (understandably) receiving award buzz and it comes as no surprise to state that she is fantastic as the strong yet optimistic rock to support her daughter’s hardship throughout the film.
As previously stated, Beale Street’s story is presented through a series of intimate exchanges rather than a linear biographical format. While this approach works for the most part and lends the film a layer of authenticity, a few times I found it impacted the rhythm of the tale, particularly during a lengthy sequence between Fonny and an old friend of his played by Brian Tyree Henry. The scene is perfectly acted and is ultimately a powerful exchange that starts out as casual camaraderie amongst friends, but it eventually foreshadows the trauma that awaits Fonny when he will inevitably be imprisoned. I’m conflicted though as despite feeling that the duration of the scene is mildly distracting to the film’s flow, I understand why it was so lengthy and it does add dimensions to the film’s central themes.
Beale Street largely succeeds thanks to the stirring combination of striking cinematography, moving performances, and one of the best musical scores of the year from Nicholas Britell. This perfect mixture evokes the purity and optimism of falling in love, and I found it impossible at times to not be overcome by the stirring emotions on display. Ultimately this bittersweet story isn’t solely reserved for romantic love between a husband and wife, but rather the power of love in all forms from friends, family, and community and the support it can provide during the most tragically unfair of times. Sometimes the only option is to persevere, find the beauty in your surroundings and hope that a better future awaits on the horizon for your children.