Love brought us here.
This is an advance review out of the New York Film Festival. If Beale Street Could Talk opens stateside Nov. 30.
Barry Jenkins is a director of rare precision and skill in bringing out the soul of his films. Following up one of the most deserving Best Picture Oscar winners since the turn of the century, the Moonlight helmer has devised a visually nurturing love letter to author James Baldwin. An adaptation of his 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is packed to the brim with details that instate a dreamlike quality on this Harlem period romance.
With all the racism in today’s world seemingly getting louder, Jenkins smartly chooses to keep the novel within the era it was written to send a message of love that feels more classic than contemporary, while also dealing with issues disturbingly still relevant today. The script not only discusses the injustices our legal system serves on black people, especially the men, it juxtaposes them against the ongoing sexual assault conversation to tell a rich, complex story that digs into the layers of societal issues currently making headlines.
But the heart of the film’s story firmly roots itself in romance. The narrative follows Tish (KiKi Layne) as she starts to reveal her pregnancy to her more forward-thinking family and then that of her boyfriend’s, a more critical, conservative bunch (the vengeance of the Holy Ghost gets brought up a lot by that family’s matriarch). He, meanwhile, nicknamed Fonny (Stephan James), is serving time for rape charges that the NYPD stuck on him despite his being on the complete opposite side of the northern Manhattan neighborhood in which the rape took place. Flashbacks smartly weaved into the story’s present bring the audience along on the couple’s sweet, sensual journey to be together and face all the struggles the world lays on them for the color of their skin or otherwise.
This is where Jenkins’ style comes in to create a lasting serenade that soulfully reveals the many characters’ collective humanity. As with Moonlight, cinematographer James Laxton extracts color vibrantly from the film’s settings to craft moments often more about their mood than the actual progression of the plot. There’s a softness to the film’s look that lends to the appropriately wishy washy nostalgia for the period, given the prejudices the characters face.
Also returning from Jenkins’ Best Picture winner is composer Nicholas Britell, who laces this story with a few subtly affecting motifs. In fact, hearing If Beale Street Could Talk is as rewarding as seeing it. From extreme harsh sounds in some scenes to serenity in others, or even the absence of sound altogether, the sound designers ensure that the film isn’t just playing to our eyes, but going to the ears to cement the mood of each individual scene.
The director additionally relies on his tried and true technique of intense, centered close-ups of his actors that often say more about the character’s overall spirit than the dialogue. The large ensemble is entirely up to snuff, with Layne and James as the two leads carrying much of the film’s emotional weight throughout the just under two-hour runtime. That said, Regina King, playing Tish’s mother, gives the performance most likely to snag an Oscar. In a way, she represents the film’s attitude at large: she’s raw yet composed, and angry at the world while still exuding an admirable, intrinsic compassion.
As for the rest of this expansive ensemble, most of the admittedly powerful performers get just a scene or two, which gives If Beale Street Could Talk vignettes of sorts that speak to the film’s overall message. From Dave Franco as an honest real estate agent to Ed Skrein as a racist cop, Jenkins puts time into filling out these characters and their reaction to Tish and Fonny’s coupling. But the most affecting of the bunch comes from Atlanta star Brian Tyree Henry, as an old friend of Fonny’s who gets a poignant monologue about the horrors of being wrongly convicted in prison.
There’s a haunting vibe that the film adopts more so in its second half, as the prison system has its way with Fonny, that slowly builds to a pitch-perfect final scene that is not only a powerful moment in its own right, but also enriches just about every moment that came before it. Moonlight has the same sort of power in its final moments, and If Beale Street Could Talk too opens the proverbial treasure chest to see how certain tangents in the story work to support the ending on a second viewing.
Though while it’s Jenkins’ commitment to the laborious details from just about every department of the crew that show his commitment to this project, not to mention his love and respect for Baldwin’s text, the director touches on something here so few filmmakers trying to make a political point do. “Love brought you here,” King’s character says to Tish early in the film, and that hits the nail on the head. Jenkins’ approach to a story of black love is to make it universal. Ultimately, this is a film about people looking to be understood, respected, and loved. That’s the beauty in what Tish and Fonny find in each other, no matter what the world throws at them because of how they look.