‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Review: A Dreamy Love Story From Barry Jenkins
In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins told an intimate, poetic love story about a queer black boy from Miami. After winning the Best Picture Oscar, Jenkins is back with an unsurprisingly excellent follow-up. His latest may not have the same gripping power as Moonlight, but it uses a romance to tell a bigger story about growing up black in America.
“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” reads a James Baldwin quote at the beginning of Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the author and social critic’s 1974 novel of the same name. Set in 1970s Harlem, it follows the 19-year-old Tish (tenderly played by newcomer KiKi Layne) and her 22-year-old best-friend-turned-lover Fonny (Stephan James, soon to be seen in the Julia Roberts-led series Homecoming). Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s baby and she’s about to break the news; only thing is, she has to do it while Fonny’s in jail. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says in a voiceover, one of the many lines taken straight from Baldwin, as she sits down to pick up the phone in the jail’s visitor center.
Much like Baldwin’s novel, which the film stays very true to, we don’t immediately learn why Fonny has been incarcerated. Only later does Tish briefly tell us in a voiceover that Fonny has been falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios), a crime she explains he couldn’t have committed based on timing and geography. However, it’s his word against a racist white cop with a grudge (Ed Skrein) and his recently-out-of-jail childhood friend Daniel (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry, doing some of his best work to date), who a dirty D.A. is manipulating into helping convict Fonny. The choice to withhold these details for some time is a smart one, becasue it refuses to let us define Fonny by the crime. Instead, we get to know him through Tish’s love for him, through her family’s unwavering attempts to get him free, and his own family’s scathing hostility.
While Beale Street partially charts a linear narrative as Tish’s family works to find evidence to get him out of jail in time for the baby’s arrival, that gets broken up by dreamy, languid flashbacks and flash-forwards. The overall viewing experience is like soaring through a fluid collection of memories as we watch Tish and Fonny fall in love on the rainy streets of Greenwich Village, then slip back in time to their childhood play dates, and jump ahead again to a racist incident with the cop.
As much as I love Baldwin’s extraordinary prose, one thing I wanted and didn’t get out of his Beale Street was the passion of Tish and Fonny’s romance. Unlike his heartbreaking novel Giovanni’s Room, I didn’t feel as connected to the first-person narration in Beale Street. Jenkins’ lush adaptation gave me what I was missing from the book – and maybe that’s simply because I’m more of a visual person, and perhaps because as a white, masculine person, I can’t claim to know and understand Tish’s experience as black woman. Jenkins’ latest didn’t hit me as hard as Moonlight did, and it doesn’t quite capture the same potent intimacy of Chiron’s story, but then again, it almost feels unfair to stack what Jenkins has achieved here against his last film.
Shot by Moonlight‘s Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton, Beale Street is brimming with colorful, handsome photography and hovering camera movements that sweep you out of your seat and catapult you back to the sun-soaked afternoons and dreamlike nights of 1970s New York City. Every frame of this movie – saturated with dazzling yellows, cozy browns, moody reds, and lively greens, along with outstanding wardrobes from Moonlight costume designer Caroline Eselin – is a jaw-dropping image you want to frame and hang on a wall. And as with Moonlight, Jenkins once again shows he’s an expert at plunging his audience into the hearts and souls of his characters through close-ups. The camera holds tight on the faces of Layne, James, Henry, and Regina King, the latter doing fine work as Tish’s mother Sharon, as they look directly into our eyes, inviting us to feel every ounce of love and anguish coursing through them.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie about racism and the incarceration of black Americans – realities as significant and relevant today as they were when Baldwin’s novel came out – but most importantly, the deep, shining love that pulses through Tish and Fonny’s story never fades.