There are times when a film comes along that surprises me, not just in content but by presentation. How it plays with form in an attempt to craft something unique in an industry that makes billions from giving audiences what is expected of them. I am immediately skeptical of the thing when credits role, but then you let the film sit in your mind for a while until a sudden realization hits: that movie is quite good. That is how I felt during and after watching If Beale Street Could Talk.
Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the Academy Award Winning Moonlight – though I could understand if you confused it for La La Land. That seems to be a thing. If Beale Street Could Talk is about a young black woman named Tish, who wants to save her boyfriend from prison after he has been accused of rape. She is pregnant with his child and has given herself a nine-month deadline to get the job done. In the background themes of racial injustice and fractured families play out as the two lovers try to get back to each other while facing an insurmountable opponent.
The narrative takes place during the last six months of Tish’s pregnancy, jumping forward in time as the two families work to save Fonny from his fate, and is anchored by flashbacks that explore the early days of their relationship. Jenkins shows how the coupe fell in love so that the audience is even more invested in Tish’s crusade to save the father of her child. However, this film is not just a love story as Jenkins shares the larger concerns of Baldwin’s novel. Societal and institutional racism cause many of the film’s problems which only leads to people making desperate plays to get what they want. Beale street, as stated in the film’s opening epigraph, is like any other street in America.
An allegory for the injustices faced by black people in the United States, Beale Street is one example of a thousand stories that all happens for similar reasons., some of which are referenced in Tish’s captivating narration. It is terrible and bleak, but this film is not without hope. Jenkins’ film is inherently optimistic, from the intimate flashback scenes to the film’s bittersweet finale. No situation is completely hopeless – even Tish and Fonny’s predicament. Even if the present is a dreary mess, there’s always tomorrow and the day after that.
When I watched this film, it was a different kind of viewing experience in comparison to the other films I had seen at the festival. Jenkins has crafted a poetic, emotionally moving and visually stunning work of art – a film that plays with my expectation of what a movie is to tell a small story that has larger implications.
Many scenes feature little to no dialogue, instead relying on the actor’s masterful physical performances, great lighting and a wonderful score. This is not a rare occurrence in Beale Street and those scenes tend to be the most crucial moments of the entire film, moments that are quintessential to the narrative. This gives the film a minimalist and lyrical quality that creates the poetic feel I previously described.
The core cast all gives excellent performances. There are very small bit roles in Beale Street, but none of them elicit the great acting seen from those who play central players. Kiki Layne plays the lead role of Tish and does a great job. Tish’s youth gives her an inherent vulnerability, but she is no push over. Layne balances this perfectly as the character slowly becomes more assertive as the film’s narrative progresses. Stephan James gives a performance that matches his co-star. Fonny is tough – something emphasized at various points of the film – so seeing prison slowly break him down was brutal. Part of that was the script but James nails every prison visit scene he’s featured in. The two have amazing on-screen chemistry and this is very apparent in the aforementioned ‘silent’ scenes.
Of all the supporting characters, the stand out performance comes from Regina King. She plays Tish’s mother is the subject of what is – in my opinion – the best scene in the film. It is heartbreaking to watch and King has on display the kind of pain being felt by her character. Bryan Tyree Henry, Teyonah Parris and Michael Beach are among the other stellar performances that can be found in Beale Street.
Nicholas Britell rejoins Jenkins after their collaboration on Moonlight and provides an unforgettable musical score. Filled with the same amount of emotion as the script and performances, Britell’s music is an essential element of the film. Every note is significant, revealing aspects of character in a way dialogue never can.
Much like Moonlight, Jenkins has an eye for color and gives this drama a distinct look. Warmer colour takes the place of the cooler tones of his Oscar winning feature to better emphasise the thematic elements of the story. Themes of family and love are an important part of Beale Street, with the film’s colour pallet helping bring all this to the forefront in a film that deals in some of the darkest aspects of American history. This is just one example of how everything in Jenkins’ film is perfectly designed so as to achieve maximum effectiveness.
A wonderful love story that exists to make a larger statement about the society in which it was written, Jenkins has made a film that rivals Moonlight in the powerful affect it can have on a viewer. If Beale Street Could Talk is a work of art and I am better off having watched it.
If Beale Street Could Talk hits theatres on November 30, 2018