If you’re not prepared, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk can make for a flusteringly intimate experience. In his follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight, Jenkins frames his actors—mainly newcomer KiKi Layne and up-and-comer Stephan James, who play the drama’s reticent young lovers—in luminous close-ups, talking to each other not quite at, and not quite through, the camera. The result is to situate us in the warm glow between 19-year-old Tish (Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (James), cocooned within the lust and trust and devotion and giddiness they share. Even when they’re wrenched apart by a corrupt criminal justice system—which happens almost immediately—their gazes never let you forget the rawness of their connection.
But Jenkins also primes his audience for that whispery, hot-breath closeness. As he did in Moonlight, Jenkins disarms with scenes of tenderness and bounty. His characters are eager to give themselves to one another. Jenkins has not hidden his adoration of Wong Kar-wai, and it’s hard not to feel that Beale Street is his In the Mood for Love: a masterful period romance told in lush colors (here mostly ’70s-appropriate mustard and jade) and dancing curlicues of cigarette smoke, a love language rooted in meaningful looks and wordless understandings, and with an extraordinary strings-based score (by Nicholas Britell) that conveys the couple’s tragic yearning and inner earthquakes.
Beale Street is also, of course, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel—in fact, the first English-language film based on the author’s work. Set in Harlem, it crackles with rage at the many racial inequities facing black Americans, including police brutality, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, and limited educational and occupational opportunities. (Jenkins’ indictments are all the more powerful for exposing the lack of political will to significantly address those problems, which continue to haunt us today.) Beale Street doesn’t just put a face to those issues but illustrates how the accumulation of injustices great and small weighs down the soul. In an ensemble that may well be the best of any film this year, Brian Tyree Henry gives one of the standout performances as an unjustly imprisoned recent parolee conveying the disfigurement of his spirit through an unquenchable thirst to forget.
But that’s in a flashback—one of many extended ones that chronicle Tish and Fonny’s plans for the future. In the present, Tish is pregnant and Fonny’s in jail, awaiting trial for a rape he didn’t commit. Like Moonlight’s Chiron, Fonny is saddled with a monstrous mother (Aunjanue Ellis), a religious fundamentalist who seems unbothered by her son’s wrongful stay in prison as long as he can find God there. So it’s up to Tish’s mother (Regina King) to help investigate the facts of Fonny’s case—a quest that takes her to Puerto Rico and back and to the limits of her compassion.
Jenkins borrows Baldwin’s words liberally, lending the dialogue an occasional stiffness. “We were a part of each other, flesh of each other’s flesh,” Tish explains in voice-over, unnecessarily, when the filmmaking and performances have already conveyed this no less eloquently. But the film’s universe is rounded out by the poison-tipped verbal arrows that the characters sling in reaction to their travails, as well as sharp observations about everyday millstones, like the physical toll of pregnancy or Tish’s dislike of her perfume counter job, where white male customers act far more proprietarily over her body than Fonny ever does. And the writerly timbre of Tish’s words adds to the burden of world-weariness being foisted on this young woman, a teenager who’ll never again be afforded the luxury of lightheartedness.
Jenkins’ inclination to gamble on unknown actors pays off once again: Layne’s natural openness is a perfect fit for this tale of innocence colliding with calamity. The more experienced James is able to demonstrate his range as institutionalized cruelty chips away devastatingly quickly at his equanimity. But it’s the wondrously understated King who perhaps walks away with the film, revealing ever-new layers of decency and kindness.
In the movies, love is cheap. It’s everywhere and nowhere, too often reduced to a formula or a reward. Beale Street knows better. It restores to love, romantic and familial, its sanctity—an ambition that makes it one of the most distinctive love stories in recent memory. That’s never more evident than in the early moment when Tish’s mother happily toasts her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or in the gleaming sex scenes, where Tish and Fonny remove their white clothes and hold themselves defenseless against the other. And it’s that same love that allows Tish and Fonny to let themselves be pushed into an unknown future, because persisting in hope is the most powerful way they know how to love.