When Barry Jenkins swept all before him to collect a swathe of awards for Moonlight, the success of the film meant that his next venture was always going to be a much anticipated project for which Jenkins would be subjected to intense scrutiny. Of course, it is unlikely Jenkins paid any heed to the expectations of others and he certainly hasn’t ventured into mainstream material with If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel about a young couple whose burgeoning relationship is torn apart by bigotry and injustice. Whilst Moonlight was an exploration of identity and a search for connection, If Beale Street Could Talk is a powerful and passionate polemic on love and loss that, despite Baldwin’s book having been written more than 40 years ago, remains remarkably relevant in a contemporary world where African-American people still find themselves subjected to mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement and the justice system.
Having known each other their entire lives, Tish (KiKi Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James) have fallen in love as young adults and, just as we start to become as enamoured with them as they are of each other, the story takes a darker turn when we learn that Fonny is in prison, having been falsely charged with rape. The story jumps around in time, with myriad flashback to various moments in the lives of the young couple, from playing together as young children to the giddy realisation that the nature of their relationship has blossomed beyond the plutonic. When Tish is tasked with telling her family that she is pregnant, it is only when we learn the reason for Fonny’s absence that we can understand why she was so anxious about how they might react. However, Tish’s family – and her father (Colman Domingo) in particular – take the news much better than she could have ever expected and it is only when they invite Fonny’s parents and sisters over to share the news that things get a little testy. You see, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), doesn’t think KiKi is good enough for her boy and is not shy about maker her feelings known.
As we follow the trajectory of their romance, the knowledge that Fonny is in prison casts a pall over proceedings, particularly when it becomes obvious that Fonny is innocent, having been falsely identified in a line-up by the victim of the assault. Much of the second half of the film is focussed on the efforts to secure Fonny’s freedom and it is this aspect of the story that is a little lacking. When we learn that the white policeman who arrested Fonny for the assault is the same individual whose racist attitude had been exposed in a previous interaction between the pair, it is hard to believe that testimony from those who witnessed the first incident wouldn’t have cast at least some doubt on Fonny’s guilt. Then again, perhaps I find this unconvincing because I can’t possibly begin to imagine the perils of being a black man in 1970’s America. Certainly, we need to see more of what transpired with regard to how Fonny’s case was handled by the police to understand how such a miscarriage of justice could occur, particularly given that Fonny has an alibi for the time of the attack.
The visual and aural aesthetics of the film are something to behold and the acting from the almost entirely African-American cast is first rate, with Layne serving up a stunning feature debut as a young woman who handles herself with the utmost dignity in the face of a heartbreaking course of events. Regina King is a force of stoic determination as Kiki’s mother, Dave Franco pops up as a landlord looking to help the young couple upsize their living arrangements and Bryan Tyree Henry (Paper Boi in Atlanta) features as Daniel, the man best positioned to save Fonny from prison. Cinematographer James Laxton uses colour vibrantly to match the mood of particular moments and Jenkins uses close-ups of his actors to reveal as much about a character’s spirit than anything they say. Brimming with style and detail, If Beale Street Could Talk is an ode to love and heartbreak that somehow remains hopeful in the face of unimaginable injustice.