Joy and injustice intertwine in Barry Jenkins’ breathtaking follow-up to Moonlight.
One of the many exquisitely written, beautifully delivered monologues in If Beale Street Could Talk is about the impossibility a young black couple face trying to find an apartment in New York City. Racism and misogyny haunt them at every turn, transforming what should be a simple life milestone into a soul destroying uphill battle. Yet when writer/director Barry Jenkins actually depicts one of their attempts to find a place to live, it doesn’t end with cruelty but with unexpected kindness. Far from undermining the pain of the initial monologue, the scene just drills home its point; this task shouldn’t be so impossible, this compassionate gesture so rare. Jenkins takes the inverse approach of stories of social injustice that wallow in pain and suffering. He fills his screen with images of joy, connection, and strength. The tragedy of If Beale Street Could Talk comes not from watching horrors viscerally unfold on screen, but from watching happiness unfold instead, with the knowledge that in this world happiness is often only fleeting.
Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a breathtaking follow-up to Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, one that maintains the director’s signature cinematic intimacy while drastically expanding his scope. Set in 1970s Harlem, the film loosely unfolds across two parallel timelines. In the first, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) discovers that she’s unexpectedly but not unhappily pregnant, which only makes her even more adamant about freeing her 22-year-old artist fiancé Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) from wrongful imprisonment for a rape accusation.
She’s joined in that effort—and in excitement over her impending baby—by her warmly pragmatic family, her mother Sharon (Regina King), father Joseph (Colman Domingo), and older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Meanwhile, the second timeline flashes back not too far in time to trace the early days of Tish and Fonny’s courtship, starting at the moment their childhood friendship first became romantic and moving forward until shortly before Fonny’s arrest. Both timelines are linked by Tish’s narration, much of it lifted directly from Baldwin’s prose.
Plot, however, is not the point of If Beale Street Could Talk (the film is at its weakest in the few moments it turns its attention too much to logistics). Instead, Jenkins has crafted an impressionistic, expressionistic piece that feels as much like a poem as film. Working with go-to cinematographer James Laxton, there are plenty of shades of Moonlight here, particularly in the heightened straight-to-camera shots that have become Jenkins’ signature. But Beale Street equally calls to mind the lush period romanticism of John Crowley’s Brooklyn. Jenkins’ Harlem is full of bright, saturated colors, and time seems to move more slowly in the flashbacks, allowing the film to drink in the golden warmth of first love. There’s a palpable realism to the at-times endearingly awkward courtship of two young people both pretending to be slightly older and wiser than they actually are. Yet there’s also a mythic quality to Tish and Fonny’s love. Tish describes their bond in almost spiritual terms, as if they were two souls destined to find each other.
That blend of the realistic and the mythic conveys the idea that Beale Street is about both the specific story of Tish and Fonny, but also the broader story of the black experience in America. Much of that story is centered on the brutal biases of the criminal justice system, which tears apart the lives of so many black families, and—as Jenkins is careful to note—often prevents victims (particularly female victims) from getting true justice as well. Again, however, Jenkins takes a sideways approach to portraying the horrors of that system. His camera doesn’t follow Fonny behind bars to depict what’s happening there. Instead the horror is felt in the way Fonny tries and sometimes fails to hide his pain during Tish’s visits.
It’s also felt in a standout flashback vignette in which Fonny runs into his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), newly released from a two-year stint in prison. Jenkins lets the scene play out at great length, as if the film suddenly becomes a one-act play about Daniel’s experience—an experience we know Fonny is headed for as well. It’s in Daniel’s cautious relief at being free that Beale Street most poignantly captures the powerlessness of unjust imprisonment.
It would be hard to pick a standout performance in this all-around flawless ensemble, although KiKi Layne deserves special praise for bringing humanity to Tish’s heightened, poetic narration as well as depth to her quieter, observant onscreen demeanor. Yet each character and each performer is given a moment in which they briefly, exhilaratingly take control of the film. Beale Street is modern American mythology and to Jenkins there is no greater form of heroism than quiet, everyday acts of strength: The heroism of supporting your family, of carrying a child, of maintaining your humanity in a world that tries to tear it away from you.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a story of romantic love, but it’s equally a story of familial love, particularly parental love. Each generation makes sacrifices for the next, hoping against hope that in actively taking on certain burdens their children won’t have to. They succeed to an extent, although few to the extent that they’d like to. The wheels of progress move infinitesimally slowly, and sometimes don’t seem to move at all. There’s a tragedy to that, which Jenkins more than realizes. The film is a condemnation of the injustice of families forced to share their meals around a prison cafeteria table rather than a family dining room. But If Beale Street Could Talk is even more so a celebration of the families who find the strength to transform that space into a joyful one.
If Beale Street Could Talk arrives in theaters with the full emotional force of a hurricane on December 25th.