If Beale Street Could Talk

Few filmmakers in recent years have exhibited such rare precision and skill in bringing out the soul of their films as Barry Jenkins. From his debut feature, the indie romance Medicine for Melancholy, to his coming-of-age drama Moonlight, Jenkins has found rich and compelling ways to evoke black life in America in all its contradictions and complexities. Following up one of the most deserving Best Picture winners since the turn of the century, his latest triumph, the period romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk, is a beautiful love letter to the literature of James Baldwin, adapted from his 1974 novel of the same name.

A visually nurturing, dreamlike depiction of young love in Harlem, the film concerns the struggles of two lovebirds, respectfully nicknamed Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James). When Tish becomes pregnant shortly after Fonny is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, she struggles over how to break the news to her more forward thinking parents, in contrast to Fonny’s critical, conservative family (Needless to say, the Holy ghost is invoked by his mother in response.) Employing a non-linear structure that uses flashbacks frequently, the sweet, sensual journey of Tish and Fonny’s budding romance is contrasted with the harsh realities of urban life, made even more difficult by the color of their skin. This is most apparent in scenes depicting the injustices in a legal system which jails Fonny on rape charges despite overwhelming evidence he couldn’t have possibly committed the crime.

While the film is no doubt infused with anger and grief over uncomfortable truths in our society in regards to racism and sexual assault, Jenkins masterful command of the medium ensures If Beale Street Could Talk stands as far more than a simple message movie. His stylistic flourishes, slightly subdued more than one might expect for a director of such talent and ambition, create a lasting serenade that soulfully reveals his many characters collective complexities. Working once again with cinematographer James Laxton, colors are extracted vibrantly from the period setting to convey moments that are often more about mood than the progression of story. There’s a softness to the look of the picture well suited to the nostalgic longing at the heart of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, despite the prejudices of the period they endure.

Also essential among Jenkins collaborators is composer Nicholas Britelli, who follows up his work on Moonlight with a score that appropriately laces the story with subtly affecting motifs perfectly suited to the rhythm of scenes. From intense harsh sounds in some scenes to serene ambiance in others, or even complete silence, the film plays to our ears as much as our eyes and makes the experience of hearing If Beale Street Could Talk as rewarding as seeing it. A scene set in Fonny’s apartment where an old friend (Atlanta star Brian Tyree Henry) confides in him via monologue about his horrible experience being wrongfully convicted in prison, for example, resonates all the more powerfully for the outstanding sound design.

This moment also showcases Jenkins trademark use of intense, centered close up shots on his actors, that often convey more about the soul of characters than the dialogue. His extraordinary ensemble cast wear their hearts on their sleeve, doing justice to both Jenkins and Baldwin’s distinct vision through the sincerity of their performances. As the two leads Layne and James sparkle with romantic chemistry while carrying much of the film’s emotional weight just under its two hour runtime. Much deserved praise has been lavished on Regina King as well, who commands the screen as Tish’s mother. In many ways, hers is the performance most in tune with the overall tone of the picture; she’s both raw yet composed, and weighed down by anger at the world while still possessing an admirable, intrinsic compassion.

As the film moves towards its final act it appropriately adopts a more haunting, elegiac vibe as the weight of unfortunate circumstances bear down on our subjects, that stands in stark contrast to the moments of warmth that color the earlier scenes of romantic idyll. Yet just as was the case with Moonlight, when If Beale Street Could Talk arrives at its pitch-perfect conclusion, the result enriches all the vignettes that preceded it while standing as a powerful statement in its own right. In the end it is Jenkins’ and his collaborators immense respect for Baldwin’s work, evidenced in their painstaking commitment on display in every frame of If Beale Street Could Talk, that lends the film its transcendent quality. “Love brought you here”, Tish’s mother tells her early in the film, and that’s really where the heart of the story lies, and how Jenkins is able to tell it in a way that is universal. The individuals who occupy the spaces of his cinema ultimately just want to be understood, respected, and loved. There’s beauty in Tish and Fonny being able to find that in each other, no matter what the world throws at them for how they look.