Barry Jenkins makes remarkably intimate cinema. Only two years ago, his second film—Moonlight—took home Best Picture at the Oscars. The gut-wrenching coming-of-age queer drama was a gorgeous, yet harrowing statement about the effect of emotional and physical trauma. If Beale Street Could Talk finds Jenkins in more loving territory, adapting James Baldwin’s famous 1974 novel. However, in true Jenkins fashion, there’s always a barrier to true hope with the beauty of intimacy and love still shining through.
We follow lifelong-friends-turned-lovers Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) in Harlem. We discover 19-year-old Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child, angering his evangelical mother while, around the time of the pregnancy, Fonny is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.
Jenkins tells the story in a non-linear fashion as we follow Tish and Fonny in the past as they fall in love, and in the present, where Fonny is in jail waiting for trial while Tish and her empathetic mother Sharon (Regina King) try to investigate the facts of Fonny’s false imprisonment.
While this is a romantic story at heart, Jenkins sprinkles the story with vehement rage at the racial inequality that African-Americans faced in the ’70s. Many different thematic angles are explored, including police brutality, racism in the justice system, and housing discrimination. Jenkins displays how each of these issues affected African-Americans in their day-to-day life, wearing their soul with every little incident. Yet, despite these injustices, our characters find solace in the people who care for them. In one of the more heart-warming scenes of the film, Fonny catches up with his old friend Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry)—a recently released parolee. You can see Daniel’s spirit has been eroded, but he has just enough spirit to move on, and finds that moment of solace when he gets to meet up with Fonny for the first time in a long time.
If Beale Street Could Talk echoes Moonlight in its storytelling with Fonny’s heavily religious mother. In one of the film’s more celebratory scenes, Tish and Fonny’s families gather to announce and celebrate the pregnancy. It’s laden with sizzling dialogue and witty one-liners—this is only until Fonny’s mother voices her distaste for the pregnancy. In a moment where our hearts drop, she states: “That child is born of sin.” While it is gut-wrenching seeing the societal and familial adversity that Tish and Fonny are put through, it only makes their romantic connection stronger.
While Moonlight was drenched in a largely blue colour palette, cinematographer James Laxton opts for a more luscious palette of golds and greens, giving Harlem its visual beauty in juxtaposition to harsh lack of justice thrown at our protagonists. Composer Nicholas Britell delivers one of the most beautiful scores of 2018, elevating each scene and moment where it’s present. Britell delivers a leitmotif so gorgeous it’ll likely make your heart soar or weep, and hit the soul extremely hard. Akin to the whole film it’s laced with tragedy underneath its beauty.
Moonlight contained breakout performances from younger, relatively unknown actors, and Jenkins repeats that with the two leads here. Stephan James and KiKi Layne are brilliant as Fonny and Tish respectively. Layne radiates innocence as Tish, while James is strongest in the moments where you can see his happiness being chipped away at. But while they are both brilliant, Regina King stands out as the star of the ensemble as Tish’s mother Sharon—a woman whose human decency shines in a world full of people who want to take the happiness away from the people surrounding her. King moves audiences in moments where desperation is her only hope. Jenkins loads his supporting cast with more well-known actors in smaller bit-parts including fabulous work from the previously mentioned Bryan Tyree Henry—a menacing and effectively unlikable turn from Ed Skrein as a racist cop—as well as Dave Franco in a symbolic role as a Jewish landlord who doesn’t discriminate on race, despite prevalent housing discrimination taking place in Harlem. Instead, he just loves seeing our main couple infatuated with each other—much like us, the audience.
Jenkins is great at the visual communication of an idea. Tish explains to the audience how much her and Fonny are in love via voice-over throughout the film. It’s a nice choice, because the audience knows how Tish feels firsthand; however, when Jenkins’ direction and the performances from our two leads have already conveyed this adoration so well, the use of voice-over can sometimes come across as unnecessary, especially when a director as skilled as Jenkins is visually at the helm.
If Beale Street Could Talk thrives by being as romantic as possible without devolving into the stale, formulaic, or saccharine. All of the struggles our characters face feels part and parcel of the terror African-Americans had to face in the ‘70s. And yet, while Tish and Fonny are thrown obstacle after obstacle, their love and infatuation for each other remains strong. Jenkins delivers an extremely soothing film without skirting around depicting the injustice at every turn. While injustice seemingly follows our characters everywhere, Sharon reaffirms to her daughter that you have to trust love will get you through. It’s a great message for an adaption of a novel that—while released over four decades ago—in many ways still feels timeless.
If Beale Street Could Talk comes out in Perth cinemas on February 14.