“Moonlight” was only the beginning for director Barry Jenkins.
Almost two years after his second feature film’s best picture win, Jenkins’ name has resurfaced in the Oscars conversation following the release of his highly anticipated new film “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, the film is a delicate period romance and a poignant depiction of racial injustice that showcases Jenkins’ penchant for poetic visual storytelling. Although his third feature film is more flawed than its predecessor, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is an undeniably beautiful portrait of a couple torn apart by a corrupt criminal justice system.
The film chronicles the relationship between 22-year-old Alonzo (Stephan James), who goes by Fonny, and 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) as they navigate life and love in 1970s Harlem. The picture-perfect love story is almost immediately shattered, however, when Fonny is incarcerated on a false rape accusation. After Tish discovers she’s pregnant, her and her family band together in a desperate effort to clear his name.
Tish and Fonny’s relationship is told primarily via flashbacks interwoven throughout the present-day turmoil. Tender moments – ranging from house hunting to their first time having sex – are juxtaposed with the bleak reality of the current situation. Jenkins intentionally paints the fragments of their past as picturesque to illustrate the idyllic future that racism could potentially deny the young couple.
While the flashbacks fulfill a pointed purpose, the utopic framing of the past sacrifices some of the authenticity of their relationship. No relationship, nor any single person, is perfect, and both Tish and Fonny lack the flawed complexity of fully fleshed out characters. The two leads frequently come off as one-dimensional, characterized primarily by the love they feel for one another. As the story effectively highlights issues of racism and imprisonment, the characters’ personalities feel secondary to their circumstance.
One of the more compelling characters is Tish’s mom Sharon, played masterfully by Regina King. In an unjust world that seems pitted against Tish and Fonny, Sharon is a steadfast force of compassion while refusing to give in to a system that victimizes her family. She celebrates when her teenage daughter announces her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and she travels to Puerto Rico in the hopes of convincing Fonny’s accuser of her mistaken identification. King deftly balances Sharon’s gentle demeanor and the fire burning just below the surface, infusing the character with a level of empathy that is rarely achieved in fiction.
Visually, the film is stunning, incorporating vibrant splashes of yellows, greens and reds in both the costumes and the set design that radiate warmth despite the dire situation. The flashbacks are accompanied by sweeping, graceful camera movements that reflect the intimacy between the characters and breathe life into their romance. Conversely, the present-day scenes feature more stagnant camerawork that matches the realistic tone. Centrally framed close-ups in which the characters look simultaneously at and through the camera establish a vulnerability signature to Jenkins’ work.
Jenkins is as much a poet as he is a filmmaker, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” seamlessly cuts from past to present like free verse poetry. Tish narrates both time periods, and although the voiceovers showcase the depth of Baldwin’s prose, they feel unnecessary at times. Jenkins is more than capable of telling a visual story without relying on voiceover, and the narration distracts from the subtle emotions captured on screen. In spite of its shortcomings, the film avoids the constraints of other formulaic Hollywood dramas due to the absence of a rigid plot structure. The film is less concerned with plot and more focused on evoking emotion through nonlinear storytelling, which provides a refreshing viewing experience.
Much of the film’s emotional impact stemmed from the story’s political relevance, even nearly 50 years after the novel takes place. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is both a moving love story and a richly layered look at how the American criminal justice system works against black men. It is a fragile, melancholic romance that rejects the despondency of tragedy – a social critique that refuses to preach. But although the critique was powerful, Tish and Fonny were repeatedly rendered hollow by the emphasis placed on their starry-eyed romance. Nevertheless, the film embodies both the struggle and the perseverance that Jenkins, like Baldwin, argues are fundamental aspects of the black experience.
The film opens with a direct quote from the book: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” cueing the audience in to the symbolism of the title. Beale Street represents the black voices that are too often silenced, and the film serves as a 119-minute snapshot of what they would say if given the chance.