Barry Jenkins follows up his Oscar-winning Moonlight with another masterpiece; a lush, visual love story and the first English-language film adaptation of James Baldwin’s work
It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. In the film’s opening shot, a gorgeous crane movement set to Nicholas Brittell’s sumptuously Gershwin-esque score, we follow 22-year old Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James, in a rooted, empathetic performance) and 19-year old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne, in a star-making turn) down steps to a rooftop. “You ready for this?” she asks. “I’ve never been more ready for anything my whole life, he replies. They’re wearing yellow and blue in reverse of each other; a yin and yang expression of their union and just the first example of how Jenkins, with costumer Caroline Eselin, vividly use color to give context and subtext to James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of young love, racial injustice and family bonds in early 1970s Harlem. It’s an opening that would make Douglas Sirk proud.
Fonny and Tish’s love is interrupted when he is falsely accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman who’s pressured to pin Fonny by a racist cop. He goes to jail (giving the pair a different color expression of orange and muted olive green) and soon after Tish finds out she’s pregnant. The two want to marry but their families aren’t the best of friends. When Tish organizes the two broods to tell them the news of her impending baby it turns into an all-out fight of verbal savagery and knock-down drama as Fonny’s mother and sister slay and slur Tish’s character while Tish’s fiercely protective mother Sharon and sister Ernestine rush to her defense like a pride of mother lions. It’s actressing at its highest level of melodrama, and I mean that as a compliment. Jenkins has assembled a cast of such strong women (and you need that for Baldwin’s female-forward story) that’s a feast of great performances. Regina King as Sharon has always been a fierce queen but here has a platform for greatness that she more than delivers on. Her trip to Puerto Rico to find the woman that could exonerate her son gives her some of the best moments of her career. Teyonah Parris as Ernestine is as feisty as they come. Aunjanue Ellis as Fonny’s mom is pure spite and anger burying her deep sadness. But it’s KiKi Layne, who would be unfamiliar to most of us, that holds the film on her shoulders. It’s her story most of all, and Layne finds layers in the traditional ingenue that we haven’t seen before. She’s beautiful and fragile and young but fills every moment, every look with expressive intent and purpose.
Beale Street perfectly overlays archival footage of black oppression with narration of James Baldwin’s own words (he was truly one of the greatest speakers of the 20th century) and who’s black and white harshness butts up against the visual splendor (great work by Oscar-nominated editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders). In a scene late in the film, Fonny’s friend Daniel (a superb Brian Tyree Henry, great year for him) is fresh out of jail after being falsely accused of stealing a car and visibly shaken by the experience that Fonny himself will soon know. It’s a moment so specifically tied to the black experience in America, then and now. But this isn’t simply a tale of sadness and despair. Baldwin’s work constantly explored the range of black life in America, intimately and on a larger scale. It’s intimate moments that Jenkins locks onto with great success; whether it’s the crucial and beautifully rendered sex scene or Tish detailing the difference between when black men ask to smell perfume at her department store counter versus white men. Jenkins and Baldwin are kindred spirits in these moments and there probably isn’t a working director today that was going to able to service this material better.
Jenkins also is not shy about his affinity of the works of everyone from Claire Denis to Wong-kar wai to Hou Hsiao-hsien and he imbues his film with flairs and touches that inform the audience without ever crossing the threshold of copying. Working with a rich palette of browns, golds, greens and reds and shot by his Oscar-nominated Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton (has anyone ever been better at the mid-range closeup?), If Beale Street Could Talk achieves the seemingly impossible; to be nostalgic without being reductive and referential without being derivative.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in LA and NY in select theaters and everywhere on Christmas Day from Annapurna Pictures.