Ah, to be young and in love. The love represented in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is the kind of love we all dream of finding. The all-consuming, hungry and passionate love that doesn’t seem to know time or place. One would be considered lucky to find such love in life, or even just to experience through art. Unfortunately for our star-crossed lovers Tish and Fonny, love is forced to carry them through some awful, awful things and at the end, onequestion stands; is love always enough?
After Fonny is falsely accused of rape, the newly pregnant Tish has to find her own way in life as well as try to prove Fonny’s innocence. Innocence becomes a prominent theme in Beale Street, the loss of it and the sheer existence of it through a racial lense. As a black man, Fonny was more likely to be sentenced to jail than a white man. So what meaning does innocence have in an unjust world?
The film’s best scene is somewhere in the middle and features Brian Tyree Henry, who no one seems to be talking about and I can’t understand why, because this scene is pure dynamite. Like everything Barry Jenkins puts on screen, the scene between Fonny, Henry’s Daniel and Tish is lyrical and magnetic. It’s often hard to look away or even to blink because everything presented to us is the prettiest, most complete version of itself. Fonny runs into Daniel on the street and the two old friends decide to spend the afternoon together with a few beers and plenty of cigarettes. Fresh out of jail, Daniel recounts his harrowing experience, something that still hasn’t left him and probably never will. Fonny and Tish can only listen and hope nothing like this ever comes their way. The audience knows better, or worse really. We know Fonny will be locked up and forced to hear the news about Tish’s pregnancy through the glass of a cold government building cubicle. Henry’s haunted performance as Daniel threatens to steal the spotlight from the other actors and Jenkins forces us to examine race and innocence through Daniel’s experiences in a society that was never on his side.
Jenkins pushes his camera close to his characters and we are forced to examine their faces and the hopes and dreams that are embedded in the fine lines and the occasional wrinkle. Often the faces are like vast, open oceans and it’s easy to get sucked into Jenkins’ world of constant symmetrical beauty. At its most devastating, the close ups become almost terrifying in their openess and raw honesty. We are not used to frames like this, there’s no hiding from Jenkins’ gaze. We’re used to quick cuts and fast moving cameras that spin around the objects. Jenkins is right to keep his camera still when looking at and into his characters. Their internal lives are communicated so clearly without a single line of dialogue, a sign of Jenkins’ skill as a visual storyteller.
Jenkins has lifted most of the dialogue from the source material, the classic James Baldwin novel. Not all of it works, not all the words fit the mouths of our fine young actors and the film feels heavy and stuffy at times. Both KiKi Layne and Stephan James do fine jobs, but it’s Regina King who stands out as the MVP of Beale Street. Her portrayl of a mama bear of sorts is the actress’ finest work to date. Never overdone, it’s a natural performance that’ll burrow through even the thickest of skins to move beyond words. King has a certain effortlessness to her, she makes her scenes flow easy and never appears calculated or forced.
If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins’ second masterpiece after the acclaimed Moonlight. The film weighed down by its precessor’s succession. Beale Street never unlocks the same level of truth the more experimental Moonlight did, but it’s nonetheless a gem of a film. Beale Street is more accessible, more humble and easily digested. It’s lyrical, but underneath the romance there’s an angry heart beating at the centre of Beale Street. It’s rightfully pissed at the system, but within lies a great amount of hope, which is what we all need at times like these.