Barry Jenkins's follow up to 'Moonlight' does not disappoint within the slightest of doubts.
‘Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums’. This is from the opening quote at the beginning of If Beale Street Could Talk, a sensational, heart-aching adaptation by director Barry Jenkins from the novel of the same name by James Baldwin. As the quote suggests, it’s left up to the viewer to decipher what the story really is about: a love story full of resilience and passion, or a metaphor about the underlying racism within the US judicial system. Whatever you may think of it, Jenkins has once more proven himself to be one of the industry’s best directors working to date as he builds upon the visual style of his previous film Moonlight with such confidence and intelligence. The wait of the UK release date was truly worth it.
Beale Street is told in a non-linear format but the film mainly follows the romantic relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James). In the present, Tish is pregnant with a child whilst Fonny is in prison for being accused of raping a woman and awaiting trial (Tish promises he will be out in time to see their baby being born). Meanwhile, the film flashes back to life before Fonny’s imprisonment as we witness the couple navigate the ins and outs of a loving relationship such as buying a place to live, or doing the grocery shopping in a time when racial tension was strife. To give away what else happens would be spoiling the emotional journey it takes you on, and Beale Street is one that deserves not to be ruined.
In similarity with Moonlight, it’s not a film based on events, but a film about moments, especially the flashback sequences which are peppered throughout its 2hrs running time. In these moments, instead of focusing on the dialogue between Tish or Fonny, our eyes are drawn towards their facial expressions and body language as the camera is situated within conversations than outside of them. James Laxton, cinematographer on Moonlight, is also DP on this and the distinct usage of direct-to camera close-ups which defined the cinematic language of that movie return here. It’s a simple reason: the face tells the story more than the words; the feelings of concern on Tish’s mother Sharon’s (Regina King) face when her daughter cries out ‘mum’, before cutting to a vinyl record player, is enough to tell you what is happening in that moment. As is when we glimpse Fonny’s face looking at Tish during a dinner with his best friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), the pure feeling of love and affection he has in his eyes is something that anyone with a partner can relate to.
On this note, all the performances on display are breathtaking. Both KiKi Layne and Stephen James are astonishing as Tish and Fonny, and the chemistry between them is electric. You really believe their relationship and wish for the very best of them, as well as experience their joys and pains; it really is a show of love at its purest. In addition to the two main leads, the supporting cast is tremendous: Regina King produces a fiery but heartwarming performance as Sharon, in particular during a meeting between Tish and Fonny’s family, and Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s friend Daniel is stunning, especially during a moving conversation with Fonny at his place with some surprising revelations.
However, these performances would not be as intensely charged without the gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell, which expands on the poetic chamber orchestral music from Moonlight. Elements of jazz are sprinkled within the aural soundscape as sounds of trumpet and saxophone provide a richness with the setting, and the main theme is a blend of sorrowful strings and angelic trumpet whirls to create the conflict of hope and despair between our beloved couple. It’s a marvellous piece of orchestration and one which is every bit as alive as the mise-en-scene within the film.
On the other hand, whilst the aesthetics are every bit as captivating as the storytelling, it does have plenty to say about racism in America and the unfairness of the US justice system, especially the effect it has on life after imprisonment (there is also, dare I mention it, aspects of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet mixed in as well). But nonetheless, Jenkins has managed to balance and interweave both the main narrative arc as well as the overarching themes, which encompasses the source material, with such fluency, it will surely transcend to a universal audience.
Expectations were always going to be insurmountably sky-high for Jenkins’s next film, given that his predecessor was a masterpiece and likely to be in contention as one of the best of the decade, and whilst Beale Street has its infrequent light trips (some of the script’s dialogue is slightly theatrical, that is reminiscent of Denzel Washington’s Fences), this is a director who has once again delivered upon a film that is emotionally riveting and beautiful to watch from beginning to end. It will leave your head pondering, but essentially, it will leave your heart swooning.
If Beale Street could Talk, directed by Barry Jenkins, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One Films, certificate 15.