“Trust [love] all the way,” Regina King says. Love is what got them there, and love is the driving force behind Barry Jenkins’ tender camera in his film adaptation of James Baldwins’ 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Following the massive critical and cultural hit that was Moonlight in 2016, Jenkins’ work carries a through line of trustful, ethereal love at its core. In both Moonlight and his debut film Medicine for Melancholy (2008), Jenkins has a knack for portraying Black love, both romantic and familial, in the faces of harsh realities, whether it be drug-ridden homophobia or an undersaturated and overgentrified city life. In If Beale Street Could Talk, that same sweet love is doubly amplified, from both Jenkins’ direction and its source material by Baldwin. It’s the kind of film that is both grounded and uplifting, intoxicating you throughout and sobering you up as you leave.
The story opens with a young Black couple, KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny, on a crisp autumn day in 1970s New York. The yellows and blues in their clothes match the scenery of their background; they are in bliss. You can feel their bliss. And that bliss is structurally important to not just their love story but to the holistic story of what Jenkins wants to show. The strong presence of primary colors between Tish and Fonny, like the red of their shared umbrella, is emphatic; it paints their love as a classical tale that will stand the test of time and turmoil.
Told in a nonlinear fashion, the film wanders back and forth between the past, in which the couple are solely in the world of their love, and the present, in which Fonny has been accused of rape and is sitting in jail while Tish and her family deal with her pregnancy and gather funds to support Fonny’s legal case. Punctuated throughout is Tish’s narration of Baldwin’s voice, one that is tired and all too knowing of the story it’s going to tell, that pulls you out of the mesmerizing and artful visuals that Jenkins provides. À la Y Tu Mamá También, the narration contextualizes the love story with the system of racialized laws and legal red tape put in place by White America that is specifically meant to keep Fonny in jail and forgotten. In the face of that reality, and the very real history of Black men being falsely accused of rape (by White women and/or coerced via White men), If Beale Street Could Talk never forgets to mirror the warmth of its love with the chill of stone-cold racism. The black-and-white archival photos juxtaposed against the lushness of Jenkins’ colorful camera directly relays that.
Jenkins carries an extremely formal eye in this film; every shot, every beat, every detail, every note is perfectly in place, just as they always are in all his films. We’re provided a glimpse into the the love birds’ potential future together just by the way they look into each other’s eyes. The camera capturing them is always slowed down just enough to milk every chance it and we can have with this lovely duo. As done in the now iconic sequence of Andre Holland in Moonlight, Jenkins’ camera lingers on all of Beale Street’s characters, as if urging for humanization. It is absolutely breathtaking, and in that same vein, so suffocating. Suffocating because you empathize so much with these characters, and want so badly for them to be together and happy. Fonny is accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), and it’s clear from the beginning that it was all the machinations of a racist White cop that threw Fonny in jail. Aisha Harris of The New York Times writes in her article “How #MeToo Changes If Beale Street Could Talk” that the film is careful to add important nuance to the rape accusation story that Baldwin’s 1974 novel didn’t have the awareness to address at the time. Tish’s mom, Sharon (portrayed by a standout performance from King), pays a visit to Victoria Rogers, who has fled to Puerto Rico, in an attempt to reach a mutual understanding, since the legal system refuses to compromise. In what is easily the climax of the film, this exchange between the two women, both marginalized for different reasons, and both left heartbroken in their outcome, provides the harsh truth of this story - that every marginalized person is left a casualty in a racist society. We see this even more clearly in the ending of the film when, rather than the hopeful outcome of a happy and reunited Fonny, we’re shown Tish and their son continuing to visit Fonny in prison whose cause has become lost amongst hundreds of others just like his.
Nicholas Britell and James Laxton, who scored and shot the film respectively, joins Jenkins again following their collaboration in Moonlight, and if this trio isn’t pure magic, I don’t know what is. The forces have joined to create this dynamite combination of vision, talent, and innovation that I never wish to see separate. James Baldwin’s text continues to stand the test of time (which can be read as both enlightening and unfortunate), and with the chemistry-infused performances by both Layne and James, backed by a stellar supporting cast that also includes Diego Luna and Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk is a real-life modern day tragedy that is grounded in the personal and reinforced by the political.