“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
– James Baldwin
Barry Jenkins follows his Oscar-winning Moonlight with a film that’s as expressively moving as it is visually sumptuous. The director gained the rights to James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk prior to Jenkin’s big breakthrough in 2016, and his take on the famed writer’s novel is a gorgeous experience that enraptures, evokes and enrages in equal measure.
Baldwin’s novel painted a stirring picture of young love while also illustrating the dark forces that too often douse that love and tear at familial bonds. In Jenkins’ hands, Baldwin’s vision is realized with a grandeur and intimacy that communicates the story’s inherent grace and anger—while also cementing Jenkins as one of the most eloquent filmmakers working today. Beale Street is set in 1970s Harlem, and the film highlights all of the sun-soaked beauty of the neighborhood and stylish cool of the era. At the heart of the tale are two people who have found love in a place full of it—but also a place where powers beyond theirs conspire to extinguish anything resembling joy.
The harshness of that reality becomes all too clear when young Tish (Kiki Layne) discovers that she’s pregnant. A young couple with so much stacked against them, Tish and Fonny (Stephan James) are no doubt joyous at their soon-to-be new addition, as is Tish’s family, but they have no money and no place to live. Tish and Fonny’s love is complicated, both by their abject poverty and by racist machinations outside their control.
Fonny winds up in prison, with his loved ones working tirelessly to exonerate him and get him home. Baldwin’s story may be ‘70s-specific, speaking to post-Vietnam urban America and the disillusionment of the Nixon years, but there is so much that resonates regardless of era. This feels like a contemporary story, and the scope of struggle, joy, pain and beauty that exists within the experiences of black folks has rarely been more poetically realized than Jenkins does here.
Upon learning of the pregnancy, most of Fonny’s family’s reaction is much less exuberant than Tish’s. Both broods are brought together to break the news to Fonny’s mother and father, and there is simmering hostility between Tish’s sister (Teyonah Parris) and Fonny’s, as well as his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) expressing obvious disdain for Tish. The disparity in the respective family reactions conveys an honesty without ever leaning on cliché; as is the case with Baldwin’s novel, the predictable “beats” are eschewed for something more layered—and more illuminating. That Jenkins has shifted this scene to such a prominent, early place in the film serves the storytelling well, and sets the stage for this beautifully tragic tale to unfold without ever succumbing to bleak inevitability.
Like the novel, Jenkins tells the story in dreamlike hues, and through Tish’s joy and pain we see how this romance is being strangled by the world around her. Kiki Layne is a revelation, communicating such a wide palette of emotion—from the pure innocence of her and Fonny realizing their love for each other to her pained demand that the attorney she’s hired to represent him not call him by his birth name “Alonzo.” The gorgeousness of what Tish and Fonny have found in each other makes the ugliness of their world so much more barbed.
Regina King’s affecting performance as Sharon, Tish’s dedicated mother, is one of the best of her acclaimed career. Sharon’s solidarity is bolstered by her affection for Fonny, and when Sharon travels all the way to Puerto Rico for a gut-wrenching attempt at swaying the outcome of his case, every bit of her frustration feels earned, and the hurt stings. Jenkins beautifully highlights the way these people are tied together and how those bonds are what keep them from coming loose at the seams. This is a house full of love, with Tish’s father (Colman Domingo) ecstatic at the prospect of becoming a grandfather; and he’s also clear-eyed in his admonishment of American racism and white people, in general. Domingo plays him with an honest laugh, like a man who has seen so much bad in the world he values every glimmer of happiness he gets.
Likewise, the love between Tish and Fonny is communicated through duality—the glow of their affection and the glaring eyes that lurk in the form of a shady police officer, played by Ed Skrein. Jenkins elucidates their journey in ways both stylishly rich and strikingly subtle. For the majority of the film, we see Fonny through Tish’s eyes; we don’t learn the specifics of his charges until we’ve already established the sensitive, creative soul that she adores—first as a child, then as young friends, then something more. So when Tish fights for her beloved’s freedom, the viewer is right there with her—even before we see more clearly how things turned the way they did for Fonny.
In his 2008 debut film, Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins depicted a one-night stand as a catalyst for deeper connections and conversation; the Oscar-winning Moonlight followed a young man’s decades-long struggle with identity and sexuality. Jenkins is truly adept at communicating the depths of desire, introspection and our need for human connection, going to great lengths to not only express how we perceive love, but also to recognize how the larger world shapes our need and expression of that love. So often, cinema about black pain zeroes in on the brutal, grinding hardship in black experiences. It’s important to illustrate the love that has sustained and guided that experience because, ultimately, that joy and that right to life is why anyone is in the fight to begin with.