The success Barry Jenkins earned off the reception of Moonlight is something of a double-edged sword. Whilst that film’s (eventual) Best Picture Oscar win no doubt helped his adaption of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk get off the ground, it also means this film will be viewed under a harsher microscope, given that we know as to what Jenkins is capable of as a storyteller.
A more traditional story than Moonlight, but delivered in a non-linear fashion, Beale Street is a love story at its core, but it should be noted that despite its Valentine’s Day release here it’s not something one would deem hopeful. The lovers in focus are life-long friends Tish (Kiki Layne), all doe-eyed and optimistic, and Fonny (Stephan James), the epitome of a gentleman in all his form. The first time we meet them though is in a situation far-removed from the romance Jenkins peppers throughout the 117 minute running time; Fonny is in jail, and Tish has come to visit to inform him that they’re going to be parents.
Why Fonny is in jail comes to light over time (he has been falsely accused of rape) and the film feels at its strongest when it focuses on Fonny’s plight and the lengths Tish and her family go to to prove his innocence; an early stand-out scene involving Fonny’s highly religious mother and under-the-thumb sisters highlight their disapproval over both his relationship with Tish and his current incarceration.
In fact, much of Beale Street‘s strength lies in its singular scenes, and as much as Layne and James are excellent in their leading parts, it’s the supporting cast and minor players that fuel the film; Ed Skrein (unrecognisable as a racist police officer), Dave Franco (lovely and subtle as a nice-guy landlord) and Pedro Pascal (who wavers between wrongful and warm-hearted) all delivering fine, brief performances as unexpectedly significant characters in Tish and Fonny’s existence.
But if there’s one performance in the film that strikes the hardest chord it’s Regina King. Unsurprisingly the recipient of this year’s Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, and one of the strongest contenders for the award at the Oscars, her performance as Tish’s supportive, strong-willed mother is the soul of the film; a late scene where she travels to Puerto Rico to talk to Fonny’s accuser is one of the most heartbreaking conversations put to screen in recent memory.
Similar to how Moonlight evoked conversations regarding the normality of homosexuality, Beale Street should do the same about race, but I warn general movie goers (I suspect the arthouse crowds and true cinema appreciators will be more receptive to this film) that Jenkins’ tale is a slow burn, and I even felt at times that it stalled a little too much, endangering itself to overstaying its welcome. That being said, this is a worthy follow-up and further proof that Jenkins is a legitimate talent, someone who can provoke conversation rather than conflict.
About If Beale Street Could Talk
Following his Best Picture Academy Award winner Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story set in 1970s New York, If Beale Street Could Talk gives voice to a couple’s unbreakable bond and a family’s empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne). Friends since childhood, Tish and Fonny (Stephan James) fall in love and are soon expecting their first child. But their plans for the future are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Relying on familial and inner strength, Tish and Fonny must fortify themselves against a world intent on tearing them apart. Breathing new life into Baldwin’s brilliant narrative of black America, Jenkins delivers a beautifully crafted feast for the eyes, ears and heart with this quietly powerful masterpiece. Newcomer KiKi Layne and Stephan James are captivating as the young lovers and their chemistry is palpable. They are supported by an outstanding ensemble cast, including an award-worthy turn by Regina King. In a story of hope, If Beale Street Could Talk tells us to trust love all the way.
If Beale Street Could Talk (MA15+) is screening in Australian theatres from February 14th 2019.