If Beale Street Could Talk is director Barry Jenkins’ third film, taking on the titular novel by James Baldwin. A follow up to his Oscar winning sophomore Moonlight, a delicate bittersweet coming-of age with troubling motifs of neglect, race and sexuality. Perhaps an inevitable pairing, as Jenkin’s films and Baldwin’s book both display beauty and intricate story-telling that unearth harsh truths. Baldwin’s novels and plays are world-renowned for successfully fictionalizing social and the psychological conditions that prohibited equality and integration of African Americans, but also LGBT+, specifically gay and bisexual men.
In Beale Street, Jenkins takes a few liberties with plot, but the crux of the story remains the same. A tale of burgeoning love in 70s Harlem between a young black couple, Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alfonso, ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), finds itself torn apart by social injustice. Fonny is framed by a cop for a crime he didn’t commit, the rape of Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Tish along with her family embark on the impossible task of exoneration in a legal system riddled with entrenched racism.
It’s a stunning film, one would say almost too beautiful for such tragic turn of events. Featuring the on-going collaboration of cinematographer James Laxton, inspired by the work of still-life photographers of the time. Laxton keeps things bright, sharp and crystal-clear. A vibrant depiction of the garish 70’s with scenes coloured with a palette of yellows, burgundies and burnt oranges, when bell bottoms, paisley shirts and flower power wall papers were all the rage.
Tish’s continual prison visits never bring any good news, the family’s continual efforts amount to nothing. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King), uses up all the family’s saving to fly to Puerto Rico, in a bid to reach out to Rogers to change her statement. The film’s most poignant scene, proves too agonising to watch as Rogers becomes far too erratic and distraught when pressed to recall events, proving of no use to Sharon. This reiteration of hopelessness is what Jenkins uses to galvanize viewers. Tish and Fonny’s endearing youthful wide-eyed innocence, their life potential unfairly cut short, their relationship dramatically severed by external bigoted forces beyond their control.
Events are told through Tish’s perspective, Jenkins anchoring her right in the middle. Flashbacks and present moments are told through the gaze of this soft-spoken narrator, an occasional Baldwin quote slips through. Engaging as her narration is, its not entirely effective. Her tranquil demeanour intermittently feels a little flat and one-dimensional, contributing to a few, if sparse, lull moments.
It’s not to the complete detriment to the film by any means but perhaps the urgency and emotional potency of the couple’s situation coupled by the flawless cinematography, makes matters feel slightly muted and a little light. Jenkins seems to have disposed much of the ugliness that pre-occupied Moonlight’s Chiron, where you got the full effects of his relentless bullying and parental abuse, juxtaposing them with moments of kindness and tenderness, giving the desired effect of agonising heartbreak.
At face value a scenario like this would ripe for heavy melodrama. It could have gone all the way with an emotive tragedy full of heart-wrenching punches, a full-on sobering condemnation of an utterly prejudicial establishment. But instead Jenkins opts for a subtler, more humanist approach focusing on the details and the nuances to garner emotion. Perhaps this aversion to show too much struggle contributes to a lack of intensity, but make no mistake this is still a captivatingly beautiful film.
If Beale Street Could Talk is released on the 18thJanuary 2019
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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