Barry Jenkins follows Moonlight – the sumptuously cinematic coming of age Oscar winner that famously wasn’t La La Land two years ago – with a love story almost equally perfect. Based on the eponymous novel by pioneering novelist James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk boasts gorgeous writing and Jenkins’ now familiar eye for visual lyricism. Frustration and anger weave through his painfully empathetic narrative, which is itself told with a wonderfully fluid approach to time. The casting, meanwhile, is impeccable, with Jenkins once again proving himself to be a raconteur of talent and kingmaker.
Taking Baldwin’s anti-chronological structure, Jenkins seizes the opportunity to blend genres, with aching romance bled into crime and social injustice into familial dynamics. Newcomer KiKi Layne stuns in a wonderfully assured central turn as Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers, a young woman who learns she is pregnant shortly after her lover is arrested for an offence that he simply cannot have committed. This is Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), Tish’s childhood friend and later soulmate. Fonny has been accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios’ Victoria Rogers) by the racist cop (Ed Skrein) who had mere days before failed to take him in for a minor skirmish. His alibis are Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), an ex-convict himself, and Tish herself, whose testimony, Fonny’s lawyer tells her, ‘counts for nothing.’
While in dreamy flashbacks, captured via a bronze haze and through emblematic slow motion, we watch Tish and Fonny sensually unite, in the present they are divided by a wall of parole glass. At home, Fonny’s brutally pious mother (Aunjaune Ellis), judgemental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) and alcoholic father (Michael Beach) have essentially left him to fate and divine intervention but still fighting are Tish and her wilful mother Sharon (Regina King). It is Sharon who pays Fonny’s rising legal bills and she who goes on to track down Victoria in Puerto Rico, in the hope that she will reverse her false testimony. King shines in each of her scenes, supplying a much needed backbone to Jenkins’ often phantasmal approach.
For some, the intense artistry of Jenkins’ vision will likely prove too much. Perhaps driven by the confidence of a man who has been globally recognised for his talents, Jenkins pushes boundaries here and dances chimerically upon lines of excess. Of all the timelines, the film’s romantic past is its strongest swathe on both visual and emotional levels. There is an enchanting flow to the way Jenkins moves his camera in these scenes and a sense of balletic choreography to the motion of its framed protagonists – with ironic reminiscence to the closing montage of La La Land.
Gently unsettling the ebullience, however, is that same earnestness that soared the romance of Moonlight. Tish and Fonny are thoroughly relatable first-time lovers and, in the hands of Layne and James, draw instant empathy. Jenkins continues here to deploy the technique of presenting his protagonists face on to the camera with the effect opening a window into their shared souls. Contextually, this translates to a cameoing Dave Franco offering the couple their first home – a desperately grim warehouse – against racist currents because he ‘digs’ people who love each other.
Darker themes prevail in the present day, where heartbreaking vignettes intersect more warming flourishes. Baldwin’s Beale Street relates both to a very much real place in America, and the more metaphorical conception of black communities the world over: locales brimming with culture but persistently threatened by bigotry. As a title card quote attests: ‘Beale Street is our legacy’. There are moments in which the messages lean toward heavy-handed, albeit worthily so. A seventies setting ensures that there can be no wholeheartedly happy ending for the film’s characters but, as a piece of storytelling, Jenkins closes with immense satisfaction.