Director: Barry Jenkins
Talent: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry
Released: 8 February
If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest film by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, portrays the pain endured by black communities when their sons and daughters are unjustly imprisoned. It’s equal parts devastating and hopeful as it depicts black solidarity in the face of systemic racism.
The film, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, follows Tish and Fonny, a young black couple in 1970s Harlem. After a run-in with a racist cop, Fonny is falsely accused of rape. As he awaits trial in jail, the family is hit by another bomb shell; Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child. The film mimics the non-linear structure of Baldwin’s novel by cutting between Tish and Fonny’s budding romance, and their family’s attempt to clear his name.
Beale Street contains the same sensual eye that made Moonlight so captivating. There are lingering close-ups of lips, or the flick of an eye as it meets another. A sex scene between Tish and Fonny frames and stages black bodies in a tender, loving manner that is rarely seen in mainstream American cinema.
That romance is also strengthened by Nicholas Britell’s stunning score, which brims with swooning jazz-inspired strings and brass. Beale Street is the kind of film that can find endless beauty in a couple walking down the street.
While the film frequently makes the heart sing, it’s also unflinching in its rendition of black oppression. One of the most haunting scenes in the film is between Fonny and his friend Daniel, played by the incredible Brian Tyree Henry. Daniel was convicted of grand theft auto, despite not knowing how to drive. As they sit in his apartment, Daniel hints at the crippling abuse that he endured in prison. He never explicitly says what he experienced, but Henry’s anguished eyes convey all you need to know.
But though Beale Street is undoubtedly powerful, its impact is lessened by the occasionally leaden approach to the material. Formally, Jenkins and his DP James Laxton have abandoned the naturalistic hand-held camera work of Moonlight for a much more deliberate style and pacing. Sometimes that rigidity cripples the actors, who seem a little wooden in their physicality and line delivery.
Jenkins and his editors also struggle to serve their large cast of characters; many of them simply disappear from the narrative without any kind of resolution. That hurts the film, which wants to depict the wide-sweeping effects of Fonny’s incarceration on his family.
And yet the film still has enough sincerity and affection for its central couple that it can’t help but succeed. Like many a film, Beale Street tells us that love can endure anything. Normally that would be a pretty trite message. But by putting it in the context of unending racial persecution, Jenkins makes a powerful statement.
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Illustration: John White