During his introductory remarks at the world premiere of Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous romantic drama, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Festival Director Cameron Bailey said that Jenkins' movies "are an act of love.” And really, I couldn’t come up with a better description of the filmmaker’s work if I tried.
As in his 2016 Best Picture winner “Moonlight,” the director’s latest film tells a story in which love is the most powerful force there is, but it isn’t always enough to shield you from the bitter hardships that life hits you with.
Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel (and inexplicably, this is somehow the first English-language film adaptation of the author’s work) “Beale Street” is at once a gorgeous, aching love story and an unflinching gaze into the failings of our justice system. The optimism and hopefulness of its romance is balanced against the realities of making one’s way is a world where discrimination is woven into the very fabric of society and every system is stacked against you.
The story follows young and in love Harlem couple Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Their lives together are jeopardized when Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he says he didn’t commit. As Tish and the couple’s families — led by Tish’s supportive parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) — work together to get Fonny released, Tish announces she’s pregnant, creating an additional urgency to secure his freedom before the birth of their child.
In adapting Baldwin’s words, Jenkins is driven less by plot than a desire to transport us to a specific time and place, creating an immersive mood for his audience. In many ways, his film feels like a collection of memories more than a conventional narrative. But always, Tish and Fonny’s connection to each other is the foundation the filmmaker uses to build from. He weaves back and forth between euphoric flashbacks of the couple’s courtship before returning us to the more wrenching present.
Jenkins is better than just about any other filmmaker I know of at capturing the feeling of being in love. I could live in his lingering shots of Tish and Fonny simply gazing into each other’s eyes. There’s so much to be read in those glances; an entire history is spelled out in their wordless rapture. And because we’ve seen exactly what Tish stands to lose, Jenkins makes clear the impossible strength it requires to carry on in the circumstances she’s found herself in.
She does carry on, because now a young life depends on it, but largely due to the strong, loving support system that her familial bonds provide. Whether it’s her mother trekking off to Puerto Rico after the women who’s accused Fonny flees the country, or her father selling clothes on the black market in order to earn funds to pay for a decent lawyer, they’ll do whatever it takes to give their children a fighting chance.
The film boasts a remarkable ensemble, and Jenkins is generous with his performers. That extends to the film’s vividly-drawn supporting players, from King and Domingo to Teyonah Parris as Tish’s fiery sister, Ernestine. Brian Tyree Henry is wonderful as Daniel, an old friend of Fonny’s fresh from his own stint in prison, and with whom he shares a heartbreaking conversation about the realities of life behind bars and the traumas he experienced there.
As a director, Jenkins style is unapologetically mannered, but never at the expense of the rich emotion underlying the story. It’s complemented wonderfully by Nicholas Britell’s beautifully evocative score, heavy with strings and horns that so indelibly contribute to the film’s mood and sense of place. And the deep, saturated hues of James Laxton’s cinematography are simply stunning.
With “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins continues to show he’s one of our most compassionate filmmakers, and in the process he proves that a faithful adaptation of a novel can still be thrillingly cinematic. There’s beauty, tenderness, and hope in every frame, and those are feelings I couldn’t be happier to carry with me into the new year.