As the tagline suggests, If Beale Street Could Talk is about trusting love all the way. The film is about finding love and optimism when faced with hatred and oppression, allowing it to act as a bittersweet yet poetic symphony. It’s hopeful without ever losing sight of the gravity of the situation that our main characters are faced with. After wowing us with the Best Picture winning Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has managed to craft together an experience that is just as soulful and immersive. Rather than get into whether or not it surpasses Moonlight, it is best to say that it is still proof that Barry Jenkins is a force to be reckoned with.
Based on the novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk follows the story of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) who is in a relationship with her childhood friend Alonzo Hunt aka “Fonny” (Stephan James) and is pregnant with his child. However, when a racist cop puts Fonny in jail for a rape that he didn’t commit, it is up to Tish and her family, including her mother Sharon (Regina King), to try and get him out.
As previously mentioned, the film does recognize the seriousness of the conflict that Tish and Fonny find themselves in. However, Barry Jenkins still is able to maintain the hopefulness that remains present and make the film watching experience rather sensory. One main reason is because of his creative filmmaking team. The luminous cinematography by James Laxton captures the facial expressions of our main characters as if they are moving paintings; The editing from Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders is seamless yet chaotic as the most precise moments; And lastly, the score by Nicholas Britell feels like its own character. Part of the film’s sensory experience stems from the score which captures the mood of each scene it appears in.
Whether it’s a moment involving feelings of romance, fear, or serenity, Britell’s score is completely in sync with each moment. To be completely honest, they should just engrave Nicholas Britell’s name on the Best Original Score Oscar and call it a day because it’ll be difficult to find another score from this year that is as rapturous and constantly in tune with its picture.
But while the creative team give If Beale Street Could Talk its soul, the actors are the film’s heart and literally every actor brings their A-game. Kiki Layne gives a quietly impactful, “star is born” performance as Tish, presenting her with an initial youthful naivete that morphs into discreet strength; Stephan James is charming yet soul crushingly fragile as Fonny; Regina King serves as the cast’s secret weapon as Tish’s loving mother Sharon, giving off waves of warmth and determination even with just a look; As Tish’s father Joseph, Colman Domingo provides wry humor while offering a genial portrait of paternal love; And Teyonah Parris is a scene stealer as Tish’s sharp tongued sister Earnestine. Even actors who have one scene like Brian Tyree Henry, who has an incredibly haunting monologue, and Aunjanue Ellis as Fonny’s uptight religious mother are flawlessly brilliant.
All the actors bring such gravitas into their portrayals in their own respective ways. They even make a small line reading from the wonderful screenplay by Barry Jenkins feel quite seismic. The words from the script that the actors translate to the big screen manage to capture how our main characters attempt to maintain their dignity and pride in an unjust world that tries to discriminate them because of their skin color.
Because of the film’s subject matter involving systemic racism, If Beale Street Could Talk could’ve easily been dour and preachy. But in the hands of Barry Jenkins, it manages to be aesthetically poetic and sentimental in a way that it feels earned. It’s a powerful reminder that love and pride can be found in the face of hate. It may not seem easy to find such feelings but they can be found.
Well done, Barry Jenkins. Well done!!