If Beale Street Could Talk, it would tell us a tragic love story. Not only does Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, 2016) make it talk, but he makes it sing through cinematic prose. James Baldwin has been resurrected in a way that appears effortless, because the film is expertly made. The love is real and coursing through its veins. It begins the argument of Jenkins as a grand stylist, although we would say it requires a pattern of three to solidify that placement. Singular close-ups had me pouring tears. Nothing else was required except the very intrinsic beauty inherent in these shots. More than any words ever spoken, the faces leave the most tender mark, and tell a larger story. I left the theater, for once, feeling completely enlivened by the art.
This story is a victory of the human spirit against social injustices. A young couple – Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) – go from childhood friends to adult sweethearts. They know everything about one another, having grown up sharing baths and play dates, and as adults, realizing that their souls made perfect partners. Tish remarks that she “finally understood, that he was the most beautiful person I had seen in all my life.” They’re having a baby. Fonny gets arrested for a crime he irrefutably did not commit but someone has to do the time, this time it is him. Inner family conflicts arise, showing years of atrophied relationships and poor coping mechanisms, chiseled away by the ages. Not all is well and calm in their homes, they are bringing the baby into a fractured system – Tish’s parents are perfectly cast as Regina King and Colman Domingo and create quite a ruckus when her family invites Fonny’s parents over for the baby announcement.
Beale Street is honest and hard. Tish has to tell Fonny about the baby behind the glass of the prison. Emotions run hot here. The feeling is of the first time you are in love. If you are in love now, it also feels like that, but it has the optimism and total absorption of a first romance. Jenkins and his actors have been very gracious with their space, many close-ups feeling like we’re let into the warm embrace of the couple and are thoroughly included in his story. It is such a generous and caring movie. It really wants you to feel the fabric of this young couple’s love, and you certainly will. The marketing had it right, name-checking In the Mood for Love (2000), that genius cornerstone of sensualist filmmaking. Jenkins proves that he too is a great sensualist, going beyond the great text that inspired it, to make us feel through the expert cinematography of James Laxton. Not enough words can be said about how special of a job he has done here and how many times our entire audience alternated between grins and tears, feeling every bit as thoroughly as though we had experienced it. If we have loved, then we have experienced this film, too.
Fonny is often captured doing some woodworking. Cigarette smoke envelops him as he sets into his passionate craft. It was when he first gifted Tish’s Mom an elaborate piece he made that she knew, he truly and fully loved her, and it was safe to love him back. It’s clear that Jenkins is a master craftsman, his appreciation for what can be made by hand extends to what he does behind the camera. This entire project feels human made, bridging a gap of love and empathy that’s rarely captured in films that purport to be “about love”. If Beale Street Could Talk, it would tell us that a love that can last through every test, is the most powerful and beautiful thing that exists.