There’s a dreamlike quality that wafts around If Beale Street Could Talk, writer-director Barry Jenkins follow-up to his Oscar-winning film Moonlight, and based on the novel by James Baldwin. Following the love story of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends who become adult lovers, the film tracks the beginning of their relationship and it’s strain when Fonny is arrested for a rape he didn’t commit and Tish learns she’s pregnant.
Beale Street, named for a the Memphis road, but based in New York is told slowly and thoughtfully. Scenes unfold and breathe like theater, and the action jumps back and forth between the beginnings of Fonny and Tish’s love story and the time after Fonny is in prison and Tish deals with her pregnancy, first in telling her family and then as they share the news with Fonny’s. Tish’s mother, Sharon (national treasure Regina King), is a strong, supportive figure for Tish through the pregnancy and throughout the ordeal of trying to clear Fonny’s name.
Jenkins lets the camera envelop his characters. Throughout the film, characters can be seen staring forward burrowing their eyes into the audience, inviting them into their emotional core. It’s uncomfortable at first, but also a strong plea for connection. With an underlying theme of the black experience in the 70s, a period marred by overt racism and the struggle people of color had living in a system stacked against them, Beale Street never succumbs under the weight of its ideals, it never feels overly didactic or maudlin, as frustrating as that struggle is depicted. Anchored by strong performances from the leads, and an amazing, subtle turn from King, the film manages to remain hopeful even at its most harrowing.
Jenkins’ is a gifted storyteller that continues to shine here. Few directors have enough faith in their audience to pay attention and keep focused on slow-moving narratives, but it’s that ethereal quality that is one of the highlights of If Beale Street Could Talk.
My Grade – B+