A testament of how enduring love is extended to everyone around us, If Beale Street Could Talk is the familial dream with grey clouded skies and a few precious rays of light, celebrated with joyous life-affirming fulfillment. Barry Jenkins’ film is haunting, ubiquitous, and downright gorgeous.
The ‘60s led to a mass exodus in Harlem, leaving behind thousands who couldn’t afford to move to neighboring areas like Queens or Brooklyn in search of better schools, housing, and overall safer neighborhoods. In 1991, the New York Times said, “Since 1970, an exodus of residents has left behind the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed. Nearly two-thirds of the households have incomes below $10,000 a year,” which coincidentally ended the Great Migration after the 1960s political uprising which the Harlem Riot marked in 1964.
Residents who couldn’t afford to leave were left in an area that leads to more of the same: racial, economic disparity, the popular practice of blockbusting, and illegal police action against the city’s residents. The migration was not worth the effort; they may have escaped southern segregation laws but now found themselves (or their kin) right back where the migration started. Now just in a different location. Leave it to Barry Jenkins to capture James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk backdrop of 70’s Harlem. While also finding the encompassing optimism despite overwhelming hopelessness.
The film stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James as Tish and Fonny. They are childhood friends who have fallen in love, who are about to have a child and become engaged. As the film moves forward, we find out Fonny is in jail. We see Tish talking to him through the glass during visiting hours while he awaits trial. Without much detail, the rest of the film examines the different family members’ reactions to their upcoming creations. Then revealing why Fonny has been locked away and the struggle to get him free before their child is born.
The film is filled with a plethora of wonderful performances. Regina King is Tish’s driven mother Sharon Rivers, who takes every necessary step to keep her growing family’s future intact; Brian Tyree Henrysteals the show as Daniel. He plays a friend of Fonny who has just been paroled. Tyree captures Harlem’s rock-bottom 1970’s history with a well-placed monologue. Henry has become this decade’s new Philip Seymour Hoffman. An actor who in the late 90’s starred in Almost Famous, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Magnolia in a two-year span. In this year alone, Henry has been a key player in such films as Beale, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, White Boy Rick, and Widows. Ultimately the film rests on the shoulders of Layne and James. Both bring a combination of strength via an overall grace to each of their characters.
While watching Jenkins’ film, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Jenkins’s previous films. In an interview with the Guardian, James Baldwin was quoted as saying, “Every poet is an optimist, but on the way to optimism, you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with their life at all.” His last two films are soaring works of the use of love: Moonlight is about denying yourself love and happiness in an unforgiving world, while Beale Street is about how you deal with an unforgiving world and use love to carry on, and neither film could have found that achievement without reaching the main protagonists’ breaking points.
This is the third feature film from Barry Jenkins and his follow-up to the Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight. The screenplay is a beautiful rendition of Baldwin’s novel. So much so, the characters are practically lifted off the pages. They come vividly to life in front of your eyes. His film is an overall testament to how enduring love is extended to everyone around us. If Beale Street Could Talk is the familial dream placed under a metaphorical grey cloud-covered canopy that lets so few precious rays of light in that when they come, they are always celebrated with joyous, life-affirming fulfillment.
The result is the finest adaption this decade since Room. A haunting portrait of finding happiness within despair, a display of an intense feeling of deep intimacy within every shot of the camera’s frame, and an overall breathtaking display of what life has to offer. It’s downright gorgeous.