By Bradley Lane
Cinema is an extremely powerful medium for telling stories about humans and humanity. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, is, if not anything else, a story about humanity. It tests the limits of love, faith and hope in a story so grounded it will leave you just as furious as inspired. Jenkins is dealing incredibly dense and complex subjects in this film and it would be easy for him to make a film that is brooding and angry, but instead he uses hope and love to drive his narrative to masterful results.
If Beale Street Could Talk follows the lifelong friends-turned-romantic-partners Tish and Fonny. Together they struggle to get by in an unforgiving 1970s New York that is particularly discriminatory toward young black people like them. In a nasty twist of fate, a combination of a vengeful police officer and a traumatized victim, Fonny gets framed for rape. From this point the narrative pivots to Tish and her family’s unrelenting effort to seek justice for Fonny, as Tish learns she is carrying Fonny’s child.
Jenkin’s adaptation of Baldwin’s novel reads, in many points, like a stage play. Many sequences are meticulously blocked out and the dialogue ranges the gambit from heartwarming confessions all the way to razor sharp wittiness. Additionally, he sets his camera in positions that highlight the space between actors and draws attention to how characters move within that space. Accentuating the unique style of the film, bright yellows, blues and reds saturate the frame with a color palette that evokes an old school technicolor feel. All of these choices make If Beale Street Could Talk an extremely stylistic watch.
Do not get the wrong idea though; through all the style of the film, it remains a grounded story about two people desperately in love with one another. KiKi Layne playing Tish, and Stephan James playing Fonny, are so wholesome and sweet, their time on screen together is hard to look away from. Their relationship oozes sincerity and care for one another. It is their relationship that pushes the film forward and forces the audience to consider how you can keep pushing in the face of such impossible odds. The film is decidedly angry, and it has every right to be, but instead of channeling that anger into violence or destruction, it finds a quiet strength within the hope that in the future, with a lot of effort, things can get better.
If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the year’s best films, with one of the year’s most powerful messages.