If Beale Street Could Talk: A Powerful Meditation On Love, Family, And Injustice
Barry Jenkins follows up 2016’s phenomenal effort Moonlight with If Beale Street Could Talk, a powerful story of love and injustice intertwined. Using the rich lyricism of author James Baldwin’s source material, Jenkins brings this painful, yet moving story into a vibrant reality. It may not have the capacity to outshine Moonlight, but it’s still a potent testament to Jenkins’ masterful abilities as a visual storyteller.
A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish (screen newcomer KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (Stephan James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.
In 2016 Barry Jenkins emerged as one of contemporary cinema’s brightest and most poetic new talents, and for good reason. Every composition and frame of Moonlight (which rightfully earned him an Oscar for Best Picture, despite the silly snafu with the envelope) is searing and imposes a devastatingly beautiful mark on the mind and memory of the viewer. With Beale Street, Jenkins proves that his success with Moonlight was no fluke. Anyone who thought that Moonlight was lightning in a bottle is sorely mistaken; Barry Jenkins is here to stay!
If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful meditation on families torn apart by a broken system and how love triumphs over all, no matter how grave and unfortunate the circumstances may be, and Jenkins’ prowess as a director is largely why the film packs such an emotional punch. His use of color is masterful here; the film is filled with such vibrant tints and tones that pop and jump off screen. There is a Malick-like quality to his visual lexicon that services Baldwin’s lyricism, and his ability to say so much using just a close-up shot of a character’s face with no dialogue is breathtaking and unparalleled.
For those of you that are still gushing over A Star is Born’s authentic relationship, your commentary will be put to sleep by Beale Street’s KiKi Layne and Stephan James, who are, in my opinion, the most believable and charming cinematic couple of the year. Like Lady Gaga is to A Star is Born, KiKi Lane is to If Beale Street Could Talk; the film marks her debut, and her performance is nothing short of extraordinary. Layne might not burst into song, but her ability to say a lot without so much as uttering a word speaks volumes and proves that she has a bright future ahead.
Jenkins brings out the warmth of Tish (Layne) and Fonny’s (James) relationship, and every bit of their joy and struggle can be viscerally felt. Any time the two share the screen together, the film swoons with the intoxicating aroma of young love, which makes the film’s injustices that much more devastating.
We are introduced to Tish and Fonny in a sweeping long shot that sets up the poetic romanticism immediately before plummeting us into depths of the narrative’s social injustice. Wrongfully imprisoned for rape, Fonny is thrown into jail, and we see how Tish and Fonny’s relationship has devolved to separation by glass, their intimacy with one another still shining through their unfortunate situation. To make matters even more despairing, Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s baby, which Fonny’s family doesn’t support.
The film ping pongs between Tish and Fonny’s relationship prior to his arrest and the aftermath following his incarceration, creating moments of powerful juxtaposition that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Its final image is a shattering and touching tableau that brings the whole experience full circle and reinforces its message of love conquers all. When you combine Jenkins’ direction, James Laxton’s gorgeous cinematography, and the strong performances from the film’s central leads with Nicholas Britell’s phenomenally romantic score, you may very easily be moved to tears on multiple occasions.
Recommendation: If beautifully rendered depictions of love and/or stories of the black experience are your thing, this is an absolute must.
Rating: 4 wrongful imprisonments outta 5.
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