A couple years ago, writer-director Barry Jenkins took the film world by storm with his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight. The Best Picture winner was a film brimming with empathy, and it’s personal tale mixed with social issues about the black experience in America established Jenkins as an emerging voice in American cinema. For his highly anticipated follow up, Jenkins adapts the novel If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, who came back into the public consciousness after the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro. If Beale Street Could Talk further cements Barry Jenkins as one of the best filmmakers working today with his unparalleled ability to craft films that exude empathy in every frame while placing a spotlight on the inequities inherent in American life for black Americans.
Jenkins’ adaptation of Baldwin’s weaves between two distinct periods in the relationship between Alfonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Lane). One period is a whirlwind romance between the two young lovers as they struggle to make their own way in Harlem. The other is the most trying aspect of their lives. Tish discovers she’s pregnant as Fonny is imprisoned before a trial after being accused of rape. The film deftly moves between these two parallel storylines without ever creating confusion for the audience.
If Beale Street Could Talk captures the hopes and dreams of young lovers as they attempt to make it on their own in hustle and bustle of New York City. We’re witness to the swelling romance between Fonny and Tish as they transition from lifelong friends to lovers. Jenkins employs a light touch in his filmmaking, allowing the actors to turn little gestures into big moments and often without having them utter a single word. That same light touch that brings the warmth of love to the screen is also employed to dash the hopes of Fonny and Tish. It takes a while to learn why Fonny has been imprisoned, and Jenkins slowly unveils the layers to the trumped up case that is devastating the lives of so many. Without making a strained and obvious point, Jenkins highlights an unjust system that has continually made justice an elusive myth for countless black Americans over the course of history.
Within the delicate balance between the lush romanticism and the tragic realities of a twisted criminal justice system, Barry Jenkins finds plenty of room to employ a bit of humor. One scene where Tish and her father Joseph (Colman Domingo), mother Sharon (Regina King), and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) informs Fonny’s family that she’s pregnant with his child finds the emotional scene turning into a rather comical exchange of insults. For a moment you’re able to forget the world of pain that Tish and Fonny have been flung into, but it’s just a moment as Jenkins lulls you into a bit of complacency before injecting a shocking, truly unexpected moment.
The inequities of the criminal justice system highlighted in If Beale Street Could Talk force Tish and her family as well as Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) have to take on various jobs and side hustles in order to pay for Fonny’s defense attorney (Finn Whitrock). With a police department and a district attorney’s office unwilling to provide information, it’s up to the Rivers Family to track down Fonny’s accuser and implore her to reevaluate her accusation. However, she’s fled to Puerto Rico and travelling there requires even more money. Here the film is so adept at illustrating that justice in America is an issue of both race and class.
Another standout scene in the film that highlights the incredible balance between joy and despair features Fonny and Tish having dinner with Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), an old friend of Fonny’s. It’s a joyous reunion of old friends, laughing and enjoying beers while reminiscing about old times. The mood takes a turn when Daniel reveals that he’s just been released from prison. His plight mirrors the exact same struggle that Fonny will soon face, and in this moment Daniel recalls the horrors of incarceration and the powerlessness of being trapped by system that robs people of their humanity. It’s within this one powerful scene that you can encapsulate all of the swirl of emotions that Barry Jenkins conjures in If Beale Street Could Talk – it’s funny and sad, romantic and tragic, hopeful and heartbreaking, and always brimming with empathy.
With If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins confirms that he was one of the most essential voices in cinema chronicling the black experience in America. The filmmaker’s latest is gorgeous to look at with its impeccable production and costume design captured vividly by cinematographer James Laxton. If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie that stimulates the intellect and stirs the soul, taking the audience through a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts through its moving two-hour journey.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Another powerful and moving film from writer-director Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk takes the audience of an emotional journey of love and pain while highlighting the inequities of the American criminal justice system in a stunning adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel.