Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Brian Tyree Henry
Released: February 14, 2019
Grade: A+

If Beale Street Could Talk

In 2013, filmmaker Barry Jenkins felt his head was in a “really good place” and, on the advice of a friend, he took an impromptu trip to Europe to help spur his creative juices.  Over 10 days in Brussels, he wrote the screenplay for Moonlight, a stunningly good drama about a young man in search of love and his place in the world.  It made history by becoming the first movie with an all-black cast and the first movie with an LGBT story to win the Academy Award for best picture.  Jenkins himself took home an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (shared with Tarell Alvin McCraney) and was also nominated for best director.

Amazingly, Jenkins came from Europe with not one but two incredible scripts.  After finishing up in Brussels, he spent 6 weeks in Berlin where he wrote an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk.  He didn’t own the rights but after sending a copy of his script to the trustees of the Baldwin estate, he was able to build their trust and get the green light for his highly anticipated follow up to Moonlight.

Set within an African American community in 1970s New York, Beale Street offers up two distinct narratives that have been perfectly woven together by Jenkins.  On one hand, this a beautiful love story about two warm, kind-hearted people.  22-year-old Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) have known each other since kids but only recently has their closeness developed into something deeper.  They’re hired actors but you could be forgiven for thinking Kiki Layne and Stephan James were a real-life couple given their on-screen chemistry.  The way they speak and look at each other creates an authenticity that will win over any cynic when it comes to romance.

On the other hand, this is sad story about the oppression of black people in America.  There’s a powerful, unforgettable scene where Fonny catches up with an old friend, Daniel (Henry), who opens up about his deepest, darkest thoughts after spending two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Fonny also finds himself on the wrong side of the law (undeservedly so) but there’s little that he and his passionate family can do given the depth of corruption within the white, racist police force.

There is so much to admire about If Beale Street Could Talk.  There’s a gorgeous love-making sequence involving Fonny and Tish that best encapsulates Jenkins skills as a director.  It features a long continuous take (applauds the editor), a slowly moving camera that oscillates between the characters (applauds the cinematographer), the soothing sound of heavy rain on the roof (applauds the sound technicians), and a jazz-laden music score that encapsulates the era (applauds the composer).  The poetic narration adds another important layer.  

It’s hard to fault any performance.  The two leads are outstanding and the supporting players all pull their weight when called upon.  Regina King (Ray) has garnered the most attention, including an Academy Award nomination, for her tender performance as Tish’s mother.  She shines during an early, entertaining scene when she invites Fonny’s family into her home to reveal some big news.  There’s another moment involving Dave Franco that highlights the skilful way in which Jenkins balances the heavy material with splashes of comedy.

If you’re putting together a list of the 10 best films of the year, see If Beale Street Could Talk and you’ll only need 9 more.