Barry Jenkins displayed a deep emotional intelligence and sensitivity with his breakout film Moonlight, which won a raft of awards after its release. In his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, the director delivers another stunning drama about the black experience in America. It’s brimming with love, fear, heartache, and, ultimately, hope. Jenkins is a preeminent humanist filmmaker; he treats his characters with a great deal of empathy and dignity. He is also a singular film artist. If Beale Street Could Talk, like Moonlight, contains spectacularly gorgeous images. It is a triumph in American cinema.
Jenkins’ screenplay, written at the same time he was writing the screenplay for Moonlight, is adapted from a James Baldwin novel. Set in 1970s Harlem, it tells the story of young lovers Tish and Fonny. The two have known each other since childhood, and Tish tells us in voice-over narration how their friendship blossomed into a romantic relationship. Their love for one another is tested when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish works to free Fonny, but some other big news complicates the situation. Tish tells Fonny while visiting him in jail that she is pregnant with his child.
While the focus of Beale Street is on the couple, this is really Tish’s story. It’s her movie, which is made clear because it’s her voice-over that speaks to us. We’re inside Tish’s head. The picture is so closely tied to her point of view, in fact, that the few scenes that take place without her are noticeable because of her absence.
That’s a small criticism, however, because Jenkins takes great care to build Tish and Fonny’s love for each other in every second they are together on screen. It’s so beautifully realized that it achieves a near mythic quality. In the moments they are alone with each other – which we see in flashbacks interspersed throughout the film – the two are almost like Adam and Eve. When they are together, it’s like no one else exists. Jenkins stages the characters’ first love scene as a profound, life-changing experience. My heart swelled with love for them both in that moment and throughout the movie.
Simultaneously, Jenkins brings to vivid life multiple aspects of the black experience. As much as Beale Street is about love, it is also about hate. The director/screenwriter transforms Baldwin’s prose describing what it’s like to live in a country that hates you into powerful images. He uses black-and-white still photographs to underscore Tish’s voice-over passages about what it is to be black in America.
Jenkins also employs bold stylistic choices to add emphasis to a plot point in the story. It’s Fonny’s run-in with a racist cop that leads to his being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Jenkins uses silent shots of the cop looking at Fonny (or, since he is looking straight into the camera, is it us?) with disgust. These moments are reminiscent of Spike Lee’s same technique.
Hate and, more importantly, fear, play a role in another standout sequence midway through the film. In one of the flashbacks that Jenkins and his editors, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, seamlessly incorporate into the timeline of the story, Fonny meets an old friend, Daniel. The two men see each other on the street, and Fonny invites Daniel to his and Tish’s home. Daniel is recently out of prison on parole, and in a chilling monologue delivered by actor Brian Tyree Henry, he describes what being locked up is like. Worse than any pain, Daniel says, is the fear that comes just before the pain. The fear of knowing the guards could do anything they want to him has left Daniel suffering from PTSD.
It’s a crushing reminder to us of what Fonny is going through as he awaits trial. In the portion of the story that occurs in the present, we only ever see Fonny as he talks to Tish on a phone, separated by a glass divider in the jail’s visiting room. Daniel’s description of prison, and Fonny’s varying physical injuries as we see him talking to Tish throughout his time in jail, puts the lie to the humor of jokes about life behind bars. People who joke about the violence that occurs in prisons – as if anyone, even the worst criminals, deserve such treatment as part of their punishment – have a brutal and ignorant understanding of justice.
Barry Jenkins’ fabulous direction in Beale Street is enhanced by his phenomenally talented creative team. Cinematographer James Laxton’s gorgeous photography gives the streets of Harlem, and the film in general, a transcendent quality. Composer Nicholas Britell’s score, by turns muted and triumphant, is indescribably beautiful. He uses a combination of brass and strings to convey both Tish’s hopelessness as she tries to get Fonny out of jail and the couple’s soaring love for one another. Jenkins also collaborates with his editors to slow the pace of his film. In direct opposition to the multiple-edits-per-minute style that seems to speed up with every new blockbuster, Jenkins takes time to let each shot breathe. It builds a contemplative atmosphere and allows his actors to create fully realized performances.
The cast that Jenkins assembled for Beale Street is phenomenal. KiKi Layne, a virtual unknown, shines as Tish. Layne brings Tish’s arc throughout the story, from naïve young lover to joyful but worried expectant mother, to vibrant life. Likewise, Stephan James as Fonny goes from love-struck innocence to a cynical resignation as he’s put through the system. It’s masterful because it’s so heartbreaking. Veteran actress Regina King is perfection as Tish’s mother, Sharon. Her character spars with Fonny’s mother when that character is less than exuberant upon finding out she will soon be a grandmother. King projects admirable strength in that scene, but she shows devastating vulnerability when she confronts the victim of the crime that Fonny has been wrongly accused of committing.
Beale Street is a glorious depiction of the power of love. It’s also an uncompromising examination of the injustice that black people suffer under an American system and culture that attempts to dehumanize them. It’s no small feat that Barry Jenkins can do all that in an emotionally pulverizing film that is also technically brilliant. He is a unique and exciting filmmaking craftsman, and If Beale Street Could Talk is a magnificent achievement.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- If Beale Street Could Talk is an intoxicating mix of love story and social commentary. Jenkins is a phenomenally talented artist. He makes touching, intimate films that stir the soul, and are visually beautiful.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- One small quibble I have with the movie is some of the dialog. There are moments where it sounds stilted; it’s less like actual people talking and more like Dramatic Writing. This is most prominent in the scene of Tish and Fonny’s families having very different reactions to finding out Tish is pregnant. They have a blow-out because Fonny’s mother (who is very religious) is mortified and accuses Tish of leading her son astray. The acting is fantastic, but the words sound a little too written.
- I have no idea if Jenkins or his crew planned this, but there is a brilliant bit of visual design in the scenes of Fonny in jail. The wall behind where he sits to talk to Tish through the glass divider is painted tile or brick. The bright color yellow is in the center of the wall (with Fonny’s head right in front of it), and it forms a rough circle on the wall. The colors then darken to orange, then brown, in the same roughly circular pattern. The effect is that of a sun behind Fonny’s head, or almost as if the character is radiating these colors. Again, it might have been a happy accident, or I might be misremembering the effect altogether, but I recall it as a stunning image.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- The small audience present at my screening is indicative of the paltry box-office gross of the film thus far. That fact is heartbreaking. If Beale Street Could Talk deserves a huge audience. Hopefully it will be nominated for Best Picture by the Oscars, which will give it some more exposure.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Peter Farrelly, along with his brother Bobby Farrelly, is known for outrageous comedies of the 1990s and early 2000s like Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Me, Myself, & Irene. Farrelly is attempting a late career transformation with the more serious minded Green Book. The film depicts true events about a black musician who tours the Jim Crow south with a white driver/bodyguard.