This review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage on 21/10/2018.
New York in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is pulsating, alive and wholly authentic – populated with little fanfare by people of all shades. Following up Moonlight – a watershed achievement in the cinematic canon – Jenkins continues to balance significance and effortlessness through his latest piece.
Adapting James Baldwin’s text, Beale Street is a love story at its beating heart – concerning the initial courtship of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), and their subsequent ordeals as Tish falls pregnant and Fonny is wrongfully arrested on charges of rape.
Dialogue between the couple is sparse, and Jenkins strings their story together impressionistically by tracing lines of pure feeling rather than slavishly committing to chronology. It’s the electrifying bond the pair evokes that gives their romance direction. Momentary pauses linger for a lifetime, and each interrogative, sumptuous closeup of their faces communicates what words cannot.
But pregnant silences often spill into lush, poetic outpourings, and the characters of Tish and Fonny’s world speak with a lyricism and wisdom that sidesteps hokeyness to tap into the polemic assurance of the source novel.
As with Moonlight, Jenkins’ (and by extension, Baldwin’s) work here is unflinchingly specific, but also undeniably universal. Searing in both its political fury and its devotion to transcendent love, Beale Street refuses to blink in the face of live-wire subjects like racial profiling and police brutality, unembarrassed about exposing its sentimental streak by leaning into Nicholas Britell’s fulsome, sweeping score and James Laxton’s gorgeous autumnal cinematography.
Bolstered by a sprawling supporting cast whose brief impressions relate lifetimes in moments, Tish and Fonny’s story bleeds its convictions and sighs its passions. A timelessly-rendered tapestry of unfettered emotion, it dives deep into the disease at the heart of America then and now, and comes up hopeful of a brighter day.
CAST: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Regina King, Bryan Tyree Henry, Dave Franco
DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins
WRITERS: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), James Baldwin (based on the book by)
SYNOPSIS: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancée innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.