Two years after winning the Best Picture Oscar for his spellbinding feature Moonlight, Barry Jenkins returns to the big screen with If Beale Street Could Talk – a tender romance set in 1970s Harlem. Adapted from the novel of the same name by American literary giant James Baldwin, his elegant third feature sings with soulful performances from a predominantly unknown cast, and paints a wonderful picture of New York against a backdrop of social change and political injustice.
Newcomer KiKi Layne provides the film’s beating heart as Tish Rivers, a young African-American woman whose life is thrown into disarray when her boyfriend, Fonnie Hunt (Stephan James), is accused of a crime he didn’t commit and is thrown into prison. Struggling to come to terms with his incarceration, as well as the news that she’s pregnant with their baby, Tish turns to her loving family for support, and narrates both past and present to create a heartfelt love story for the ages. The chemistry between Layne and James is palpable – they exchange looks and tender touches, completely believable as a couple deeply in love, torn apart by cruel circumstances.
Now more than ever, there is a need for stories like this to be told, and Jenkins has proved for a third time how talented he is at telling them
Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), father (Colman Domingo), and sister (Teyonah Parris) all believe deeply in their relationship, as well as Fonnie’s innocence, and will go to extraordinary lengths to help this young couple. King in particular gives an arresting performance that could well secure her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. As Sharon she’s fiercely protective of Tish, but away from the pressure to be strong for her loved ones, she’s vulnerable and pained by the notion that her family face a seemingly impossible task in the fight for Fonnie’s freedom.
As so beautifully displayed in Moonlight, and his first feature, Medicine For Melancholy, Barry Jenkins has a unique gift for depicting love – be it familial or romantic – on screen. Through his perfect casting, and deep understanding of how to shoot bodies and faces, he lingers on details and provides as much poetry in his camerawork as Baldwin did in his pages. His vision of a bygone Harlem fizzes with energy, but in the quiet moments between Tish and Fonnie, the world seems to stand still. There’s a thought in every frame, from the sumptuous costume design and searing score to cinematography, which is liable to take your breath away, transporting viewers from the dreary UK winter to the warmth of summer in New York City.
As Baldwin brought the black experience to the forefront in his incredible body of work, Jenkins continues his legacy. If Beale Street Could Talk is a quietly angry film, unafraid to wrestle with racial inequality and the injustice of the American justice system. Now more than ever, there is a need for stories like this to be told, and Jenkins has proved for a third time how talented he is at telling them. Simultaneously timeless and timely, If Beale Street Could Talk is a dreamy, sometimes heartbreaking story of love against impossible odds, and a stirring reminder to everyone that compassion can be a force of nature.