Love stories have been part of the foundation of cinema since the medium was invented. And it makes a lot of sense. Love is an emotion almost impossible to describe, a series of complementary and contrasting textures and feelings and senses whose logic makes almost no sense, but culminate into something deeply and richly human. Words have tried to describe what love is, but the language of cinema is able to take that exploration beyond words, beyond a single sense or manner and be many at once, a cacophony of sight and sound whose culmination can be equally as indescribable. That indescribable nature of love is so much at the heart of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel by James Baldwin. In many ways, what makes ‘Beale Street’ such an exquisite piece of work is equally as hard to describe. As with the greatest works of cinema, this is a film you feel just as much as you watch.
Set in the early 1970s in Harlem, the film looks at the relationship between Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo 'Fonny' Hunt (Stephan James, ‘Selma’), two young African Americans and childhood friends whose love for one another transforms into something romantic. That relationship is put to the test when Fonny is arrested for a horrific crime he didn’t commit, and Tish falls pregnant, and with the help of her parents Sharon (Regina King, ‘The Leftovers’) and Joseph (Coleman Domingo, ‘Assassination Nation’), Tish must do everything she can to prove Fonny’s innocence.
With his masterpiece ‘Moonlight’, Barry Jenkins proved himself almost singular in his deep exploration of human turmoil and relationships, and while it’s unfair to compare his new film to ‘Moonlight’ (a perfect film and the best of the decade), there is a clear path that leads from one to the other, with ‘Beale Street’ in many ways presenting a more uncompromising and radical demonstration of Jenkins’ staggering voice as a filmmaker. His work deals with seismic states of human emotion, and just as despair and longing rang thunderously through ‘Moonlight’, from the moment it begins, ‘Beale Street’ blossoms with deep, rich and overwhelming romance. The narrative of proving Fonny’s innocence might be the mechanism that moves the story from point to point, but Jenkins is far more interested in the manner in which Tish and Fonny navigate their love for one another, the delicate and tiny moments that cause earthquakes within them.
‘Beale Street’ is a film about the complexity of love - love between two people, love between children and parents, love between cultures, love between classes, love for one's city, love for one's country, love for one's self. Those complexities can be joyous and intoxicating, or they can be violent and brutal, but the film is far more interested in allowing its characters the space to find that than any kind of detective narrative. It is there to serve a purpose, and does so very well (especially in amplifying the disgraceful racial prejudices that existed then and emphasise how they exist now), but the emotional landscape of ‘Beale Street’ is where you find what makes it so extraordinary. And with Tish as our protagonist - our narrator and our eyes - we are given an immediate view of that landscape by someone deep in exploring it. Though non-linear, what holds ‘Beale Street’ together is her, and the internal logic of how we follow her story, how she chooses to tell it.
It’s a story told through the senses. Though Jenkins’ screenplay is divine, erupting with ecstatic dialogue and raw honesty, it is a story told in colour, in sound, in movement. No monologue can express anywhere near the scope of one of Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton’s close-ups, where the character looks directly into the camera, into us, and lays bare their soul to us. Everyone takes your breath away. Laxton and Jenkins find beauty no matter where the camera turns, and their ability to capture the human form is almost without comparison, especially that of people of colour. The gaze is authentic and loving, respectful and truthful, celebratory and passionate. The evocation of 1970s Harlem from production designer Mark Friedberg and costume designer Caroline Eselin strikes that careful balance between reality and idealism. Because we are seeing the world through Tish’s eyes, we are seeing it through the eyes of someone in love, where the colours and textures dominate and have endless meaning. Eselin’s costumes in particular are extraordinary, each an essay in themselves (especially in the ways the colours of Tish and Fonny’s clothes complement and mirror one another). And then there’s Nicholas Britell’s magnificent score, every note pulsing with the longing these two people have for one another to the point where your heart aches in the most exquisite way. You really get the sense with ‘Beale Street’ that not one decision has been without purpose, that Jenkins’ staggering understanding of the language of film gives him complete command over it. His direction is generous and precise, and driven almost entirely by his emotional integrity. He does not compromise or pull back; I dare say he has no interest in holding back. ‘Beale Street’ confirms him as one of the great cinematic poets of the human soul working today, and even his moments of indulgence shimmer in their determination.
‘Beale Street’ is a film about the complexity of love - love between two people, love between children and parents, love between cultures, love between classes, love for ones city, love for ones country, love for ones self.
With the film resting on her shoulders, relative newcomer KiKi Layne shines as Tish, giving her a stirring balance of vulnerability and self-preservation. She carefully walks the path of bringing her to a position of strength despite her challenges, and she does so with immense intelligence and grace and strength. The same can be said of Stephan James, who recently impressed in the excellent Amazon series ‘Homecoming’. We are seeing Fonny through Tish’s eyes entirely, and he understands how carefully his constriction of Fonny needs to be, an almost fantastical idealism that comes with the early days of love, and how that ideal can begin to fall delicately away. Their chemistry together is unsure and delicate, and utterly believable. When you look into their eyes, you see the love they have for one another, love where words don’t have any use.
The supporting cast is a dream, including Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach and an unexpectedly hilarious and disturbing moment with Aunjanue Ellis as Fonny’s mother. Brian Tyree Henry also continues his brilliant work from ‘Widows’ with an extraordinary scene and monologue as Fonny’s friend Daniel. And then there’s Regina King, who leaves you speechless as Sharon. This isn’t a showy performance full of histrionics and big emotions. This is an acting masterclass, precise and restrained and uncompromising and furious, as she uses her determination to protect her daughter and future grandchild to hide her fear at what is to come. If there was any doubt that King was one of the best actors there is, her performance in ‘Beale Street’ shatters that doubt. She is utterly extraordinary.
In many ways, this feels like the right time for ‘Beale Street’ and the politics it explores, not just because the mistreatment of people of colour in America over centuries has finally become part of the national and international conversation, but because of how beautifully it complements the films around it. The deep sorrow at its heart, a love story against a social and political backdrop that does not treat it with the space and respect it deserves, sits nicely against the bombast of Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’, the opera of Ryan Coogler’s ‘Black Panther’, and especially, the exquisite anger and weight of history in Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’. That we have such a rich tapestry of films about the African American experience all within the same year (and I know there are some I’m forgetting) feels like something to be celebrated and embraced. This can only make the world a better place.
Barry Jenkins had a lot to live up to after ‘Moonlight’. And yet, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ refuses to stand in comparison, rather in compliment. This is such a deeply beautiful film, a work of extraordinary poetry and truthfulness. There were moments in this film so beautiful, so honest, so ecstatic in their delicacy, that I thought my heart would burst. It is love in all its conundrums and contradictions, its pains and its furies, its beauty and its grace.