When I heard Barry Jenkins was adapting James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk for the big screen, I knew I would have to see it. Nothing could stop me from seeing it, and I highly anticipated its release in my city. This meant, ultimately, that I had high expectations not unmotivated by the fact that this film is Jenkins’ follow up to his Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016).
Usually, high expectations lead only to disappointment, but Jenkins did not disappoint. Beale Street is a heartbreaking love story told mostly through facial expressions. The film is set in 1970s New York, following a young black couple Fonny and Tish as they maintain their love through a glass barrier. Tish (newcomer Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Homecoming’s Stephan James) are expecting a child as they face the challenges of institutionalized racism, separated by an unjust justice system that frames and jails Fonny on a rape allegation despite his alibi.
Image credit: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
The story is pain, intermingled with joy, and joy, intermingled with pain. Tish and Fonny’s story is told in flashbacks. Complemented by excellent performances from its cast, the film understands what it means to feel. Stephan James, who plays Fonny, delivers a heart wrenching performance that will stick with viewers as they leave the theater. Regina King plays Tish’s mother, Sharon, with a brilliant gusto that has already earned her a Golden Globe and will likely earn her an Academy Award.
The beautiful color and cinematography executed by James Laxton is really the biggest success of the film. It is immersive in a way few films can accomplish. When the characters look into the camera, into the audience, it is an invitation into the story and into the emotions of the character without a word needing to be heard. It is because of this that the film becomes so easily felt, so tapped into vibrancy. The film is strikingly human—a lyrical expository on the tragedy of hatred and how love endures. A must-see.