Film Review: “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a sublime romance in an ugly time
Barry Jenkins previous film Moonlight held its central characters with a near religious reverence. This is also present in his latest feature If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. The director’s simple signature of immortalising a moment in time by having a character stare directly into the camera is executed as effectively here as it was in Moonlight. It’s remarkable because in most other films when this happens it signifies either a fourth-wall breaking gag or a coarse confrontation with the audience.
Jenkins’ flair for conjuring sensual ambience in unlikely places resonates in Baldwin’s story. If Beale Street Could Talk charts the course of a romance during the ugly year of 1974, when mass incarceration of black Americans was the norm. Tish’s (Kiki Layne) first thought simultaneously sets the tone and says it all – “I hope that nobody has had to look at anybody they love through glass”. Who she’s looking at through glass is Fonny (Stephan James): her boyfriend, the father of her unborn child, and her best friend. She’s 19; he’s 22. Fonny is in prison for a rape he never committed.
If Beale Street Could Talk begins in this emotionally austere place and then goes back in time, when the innocent affection shared between Fonny and Tish is evolving into something adult and intoxicating. Jenkins’ talent for making painterly scenes from mundane settings still manages to take the breath away. We’ve seen two young lovers strolling down a rain soaked nighttime street a hundred times before, but Jenkins shows us the same scene and it feels new again. Their love scenes are as passionately acted as they are respectfully filmed.
If Beale Street Could Talk’s narrative goes back-and-forth, oscillating between a hopeful past and a grim present. Were this story to be presented in a linear fashion, the gradual loss of hope would’ve been suffocating. Instead, we experience joy and pain operating as complementary forces. These two threads ultimately coalesce in a supremely elegant and satisfying fashion.
Jenkins tells unsentimental stories of hardship and injustice. Yet, at the same time, he also evokes romantic and intensely resonant imagery. With one foot in the real and the other in the ethereal, Barry Jenkins has crafted another masterpiece.