“Every black person in America was born on Beale Street, in the black neighbourhood of some American city” says the opening epigraph at the beginning of If Beale Street Could Talk. Adapting James Baldwin’s novel, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins encapsulates this notion with a hugely empathetic story about two soulmates divided by grave social injustice.
Set in 1970s Harlem, the story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, but in essence, it follows a pregnant woman named Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and her efforts to get her artist fiancé Fonny (Stephan James) out of jail after he is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Spanning from the couple’s childhood friendship to their present predicament, it’s still basically a love story, with a scope that feels both epic and intimate at once.
Firstly, it could be argued that the film’s tendency towards series of conversations in rooms make it feel somewhat stagey, but that’s completely countered by its filmic structure. Instead, Jenkins’ application of his cinematic sensibilities to a series of theatrical scenes lend the film an operatic quality. Without a whiff of soap or sentimentality, it charts a sympathetic and smoothly paced course through a fluid narrative.
More so than in Moonlight, the film has several stints without any dialogue at all, drawing more emotion out of wordless exchanges than should be reasonably possible. From the achingly beautiful flashback in which Tish and Fonny have sex for the first time, to the various bouts of intense eye contact between camera and character that occur at pivotal moments, the emotional point-of-view makes for an incredibly powerful experience.
Still, that’s as much to do with the performances as Jenkins’ peerless direction. Layne largely carries the film, narrating as well as appearing in almost every scene, but James is an equally strong partner in building their on-screen chemistry whenever they share the screen.
Most of all, it’s impossible to not be moved by their performances when we’re shown the stark contrast between how close they’ve been since childhood and how far apart they are when divided by a plexi-glass screen during prison visiting hours. There’s a keen sense of touch that’s created almost entirely by the two leads.
Meanwhile, Regina King is expected to take home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at the end of this month for her turn as Tish’s mother Sharon. As Tish prepares for motherhood herself, King’s determined matriarch is unshowy but rock-solid in her devotion to her daughter and Fonny’s cause.
Sharon comes to the forefront of the film’s longest dialogue-free sequence, which precedes a passage where she confronts Fonny’s accuser. That this potentially problematic encounter is handled so deftly is testament to both Jenkins’ script and the sheer strength of King’s work as the antithesis of the typically shouty, clip-friendly Oscar favourite performance.
Hers is very much a supporting turn, but this is the kind of film where even the smallest part makes a massive impact. This also allows stars like Dave Franco and Brian Tyree Henry to give unforgettable performances in very brief roles.
It’s worth mentioning that Tyree Henry is especially good here – having shown formidable range with roles in recent films like Hotel Artemis, Widows, and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, his brief time on screen as Daniel, an ex-con friend of Fonny’s, could represent his finest screen work to date.
Where recent films like BlacKkKlansman and The Hate U Give have broached institutional oppression and racism with justifiable anger behind them, this foregrounds the personal tragedy of this couple being separated. There’s anger here too, because the unfairness of it all is so infuriating, but with an indestructible love story at its core, Jenkins’ film is inevitably more tender.
What’s truly impressive is that there’s no overstatement to be found here, from the cast’s performances right down to Nicholas Britell’s sumptuous score. Like his work on Moonlight, the music is wonderful, but it’s subtler at the same time. In keeping with the rest of the film, it’s not manipulative and it doesn’t overpower the audience in any obvious way. Nevertheless, the sum of all these parts is breathtaking.
Since the film was unaccountably overlooked in this year’s Best Picture nominations, some have argued that the film isn’t quite as brilliant as the Oscar-winning Moonlight. It’s unfortunate that we’re still in the silly season where you can compare two honest-to-goodness modern masterpieces in that way, but frankly, you’d have to go that far back to find a film anywhere near as moving as this.
If Beale Street Could Talk may have a broader canvas than Jenkins’ previous film, but it never feels any less personal or profound. It homes in on the emotions underpinning the story without ever over- or under-selling the social or legal difficulties entailed.
Poignant and bittersweet as it is, it’s still suffused with hope and optimism, even in the face of everything that Tish and Fonny are facing. Although the story puts them through the wringer, their unbreakable bond supports both the characters and the film itself.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in UK cinemas from 8 February