“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
― James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
The camera follows a young couple, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they walk through a park. They’re in love. Their touches, their expressions are pure. Their bliss is palpable. The strings sing in the score by Nicholas Britell and our own hearts are captured. Every second is sensual and romantic. Fonny asks Tish if she’s ready. We are Tish in that moment, and we are ready.
Cut to jail.
Fonny is behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s been accused of violently raping a woman and it’s up to Tish to race against time to support him, defend him, exonerate him, and see that he’s set free. Tish has just learned she’s pregnant with their child.
Tish and Fonny are black. It’s 1970s Harlem.
Welcome to If Beale Street Could Talk the devastating but utterly sumptuous follow-up from director Barry Jenkins after his 2015 Oscar triumph, Moonlight. As a director who’s proven his skill with deeply intimate personal conflicts, who better to deliver the adaptation and bring this story to life than Jenkins?
Based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is a devastating gut punch of a story, as urgent today as it was 44 years ago, a commentary on the racial and political injustice that remains as relevant today as when it was written.
There’s a seamless weaving of time. Tish through voiceover recounts the tender and innocent story of how she and Fonny fall in love. My God does Jenkins seduce you with the warm tones, lighting his actors in the warmest of lights and most lustrous glow. James Laxton’s cinematography pulls us in close to capture the eyes, the smiles, the hands with fingers intertwined as their young love blossoms. Laxton is adept at tapping into the essence of Jenkins’ intention to fill each frame with passion.
Time is not on their side. Fonny’s accuser has fled the country and the blocks of the justice system are not stacked in their favor. A devastating scene between Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) foreshadows what lies ahead. Daniel has just been released from prison and has seen firsthand the unfairness of his treatment there, but his most important observations concern the mental impact that being incarcerated has on a man.
Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders are back as Jenkins’ trusted film editors, working to interweave the past and present, making graceful leaps between places and events as the story unfolds. All the while the baby grows within Tish.
Regina King’s Sharon is a powerhouse. Her soul-crushing confrontation with Fonny’s accuser, trying to get her to admit what really happened and to admit she had mistakenly identified Fonny as her rapist is a devastating moment and it’s here where King delivers one of the year’s most powerful scenes.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a film about love between two people who want nothing more than to live their lives in peace, but American injustice isn’t on their side. It’s about testing the strength of love when hammered by a system of hate that has torn them apart.
Jenkins ensures Baldwin’s spirit lives in every moment of the film. He hones his love themes sharply, to pierce our hearts with emotion. Splendidly divine to witness, the chemistry between James and Layne is magnificent. Their performances are simply magnetic.
In jail, Fonny has to express his love his unborn child and Tish from the other side of a glass barrier. Make no mistake about it, Layne is magnificent and James is magnificent. The scenes when he’s staring straight at the camera, allow you to look into his eyes, his soul, we are in his shoes. It’s a shot Jonathan Demme would use for the same purposes, not to break the fourth wall, but to put us in the characters precise position, to pull us in deep. When Tish and Fonny look at each other, it’s a look of unconditional love. You will fall in love with If Beale Street Could Talk, because they hold on to hope through it all.
Racial injustice has befallen African-American men for centuries, and the suffering it brings to innocent people is a story worth repeating in art, in literature, in movies, because it’s an inescapable reality that never stops happening.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a searing cinematic experience. As a tale of love brought vividly to life, its beauty is as haunting and persistent as the ceaseless tragedies that inspired its creation.
If Beale Street Could Talk is having its NYFF premiere at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on October 9 and will be released on November 30.