From the very first scene, you know that If Beale Street Could Talk is going to be something beautiful. A dreamlike aerial shot of the Harlem riverside, golden light filters down on to a young couple who are perfectly costumed in colour-coordinated coats and shirts. This couple is Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), and though their journey will get a lot tougher than this sun-dappled stroll, the aesthetic pleasures of this opening scene are never sacrificed by Barry Jenkins. Following up his Oscar-winning Moonlight, this is another uniquely gorgeous film about a love story that feels both powerfully immediate and like a treasured memory.
Fluidly shifting back and forward in time, Beale Street (based on James Baldwin’s novel) moves between Tish and Fonny’s initial courtship, their search for an apartment together, and Fonny’s imprisonment after a false rape charge. With Tish pregnant, she and her family fight with every resource they have to exonerate Fonny, who the deeply racist DA is keeping locked up without trial in the hope that he’ll resort to a phony plea. It’s a story of infuriating injustice balanced against an all-encompassing love, both between Tish and Fonny and between the couple and Tish’s whole family.
This love envelops you, drawing you into its world and making you feel deeply for all its characters. It’s wonderful in the moment, but the true power becomes evident as the end credits start to roll, the collective emotion of the film exploding and leaving you rooted to your seat as you process the profound melancholy and snatches of hope that have defined the last two hours. Jenkins has also upped the humour quotient from Moonlight, and while that means that Beale Street isn’t as devastating as its predecessor, the newfound laughs and lightness are joyous.
Layne, a complete newcomer, and James, in easily his biggest role to date, are hugely impressive. Their love is utterly convincing and their feelings infectious, whether they’re desperately pining for each other through prison glass, giggling at dinner, or breaking down in happy tears. Around them, Jenkins has assembled a glorious supporting cast. Regina King, as Tish’s mother Sharon, more than earns her position as a major player in this year’s Supporting Actress race and Colman Domingo as committed and understanding dad Joseph is quietly brilliant. Teyonah Parris brings big laughs and charisma as protective older sister Ernestine, completing an idyllic family unit with some spark and edge.
There’s also a litany of minor, one-scene players, including Pedro Pascal and Diego Luna, but none make the almighty impact of Brian Tyree Henry. Playing an old friend of Fonny’s, he appears in less than 10 minutes of the film, but is simply extraordinary. Moving from cheerfully shooting the breeze to expressing the horror of prison with few words and a soul-shaking change in demeanour, Henry’s performance completes a banner year for him, joining his Atlanta co-star Lakeith Stanfield as one of the most reliable and versatile stars working today.
Emotion is wrung just as much from physicality, if not more so, as from words. James Laxton’s cinematography absolutely worships the human face, and he and Jenkins conjure countless stunning close-ups. Light and colour is used to perfection, and Jenkins’s unmatched skill at crafting moments that sit outside of the conventional flow of time is put to great use. Fonny is a sculptor, and one scene in which he completes a sculpture is simply hypnotic. The slowly spinning camera captures the art from every angle and sticks around after Fonny leaves, heavenly light and slow-moving wisps of cigarette smoke elevating the moment.
Jenkins’s script leaves just as much unsaid as said, pauses and glances hanging in the air with as much weight as an act of violence. Though Beale Street is, in its way, more conventional than Moonlight, it still resembles almost no other romantic story, always finding room for tiny moments and details that most films simply wouldn’t think to include. There is a glorious sense of place in this ‘70s Harlem, from the cosiness of the Rivers’ apartment to the promise and potential that emanates from Fonny’s studio.
As a political piece, the injustice at the centre of Beale Street’s story is infuriating twice over. Tish’s voiceover lays out the psychological impact of systemic racism, and the rage you feel at Fonny’s hideous treatment is compounded when you realise that nothing has really changed for black people in the American justice system. It’s a sobering reminder of how racism is the bedrock for so much of America’s power and money and how easily it can be exploited for any nefarious agenda.
Not quite as masterful as Moonlight, but still a truly wondrous piece of cinema, Beale Street has soaring romance and searing anger that will linger with you. It’s a vibrant, luscious film that you’ll be sad to say goodbye to.