If Beale Street Could Talk review Kiki Layne Stephan James Brian Tyree Henry

Year: 2018
Director(s): Barry Jenkins
Writer(s): Barry Jenkins, James Baldwin
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 119 mins

Synopsis: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child. (Source)

What is life but a cacophonous collision of energy, emotion and soul. At the center of it all are two extremes – love and fear. These two ideas inform who we are and what we leave behind, and it’s the relationship between these two that make up If Beale Street Could Talk. Adapting James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, director Barry Jenkins has crafted a passionate, bold and consuming film. Using a love story as his entry point, Jenkins reflects on the black American experience, critiquing injustice while upholding the community in the most beautiful way. Above all, however, Jenkins celebrates love and its power to tear down the most formidable forms of oppression. It doesn’t sugarcoat the darkness that lies just outside the frame, but also keeps its focus on a singular type of love, one that washes over us like a blinding light. 

The film centers around Harlem couple, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Tish recants most of the story, which begins with the revelation that she’s pregnant with Fonny’s baby. The complication, is, that Fonny has just been framed by a racist cop and is behind bars. Separated by tragic circumstance, Tish and Fonny’s family and friends vow to make sure that the baby has a fighting chance. Each person deals with the situation in their own way, united by struggle, but strengthened by love and each other. 

With a narrative unmoored from linear tradition, Jenkins presents an intimate story amidst the backdrop of something big. This is an epic disguised as an unassuming love story, taking into account generational responsibility, fate and unwavering loyalty. There’s an observational quality to the entire thing. Scenes play out like vignettes, slices of life that amount to an overwhelming whole. Though Tish and Fonny’s relationship acts as the film’s anchor, the implications are broad, challenging each the viewer to engage deeper. In addition, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton craft a visual, sensuous assault on the senses. Above all, the film is an experience that washes over us like a dream. We feel the emotions on display, with Jenkins’ penchant for naturalism and spontaneity giving each scene an urgency that burns bright and with purpose. 

If Beale Street Could Talk review Kiki Layne Regina King

Embodying Jenkins’ more abstract approach, is an ensemble who transcends the screen. As Tish and Fonny, Kiki Layne and Stephan James burn up the screen. The film’s ideas of love, loyalty and hope are crystalized thanks to them. The story’s depth comes from their ability to express feelings via nuanced actions, rather than expository dialogue. Regina King, Colman Domingo and Michael Beach add to the film’s charm and substance, rendering a believable camaraderie and support community who offset the film’s darker implications. All in all, the film feels lived in because of this cast, all of whom have tremendous chemistry with one another and fit in perfectly to the story’s big scope.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a commanding, cinematic expression that demands our attention. Jenkins has created something that captures the very fabric of life’s opposing forces. Navigating tumultuous political and social times, the story innately reflects the war that rages deep within all of us. This inevitably calls out a timeless struggle, one in which love is constantly being challenged and torn down, but never out for the count – and certainly never forgotten.