Only two years after the release of his film Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins is back with If Beale Street Could Talk – a film that reminds us how essential Jenkins’ voice is to movies today.
Introducing his new movie about the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, Jenkins explained how he wrote Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk at around the same time, and as a result, he sees them as companion pieces. He described how they are both stories of black love and family – Moonlight being the family he had and Beale Street being the family he wished he had.
This introduction not only offers some insight into Jenkins’ own perspective on the films, but also helps contextualize for audiences the kind of story they’ll find in If Beale Street Could Talk. Based on a James Baldwin story of the same name, Beale Street is first and foremost a story of family – a family full of the kind of love and support that could make you wish they were your own.
Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, the movie follows Tish, a young black woman in the midst of her first pregnancy, as she tries to clear the name of her falsely imprisoned fiancé Fonny. Do not be misled: If Beale Street Could Talk is no crime drama or courtroom thriller. It’s a celebration, even if a frequently sorrowful one, of community, family, and love that seeks to posit a thoughtful commentary on the ways in which black lives are dictated by those people and institutions biased against them.
The film begins with Tish’s visit to see Fonny in jail when she tells him she’s pregnant with his child. With a glass partition between them, Tish tearfully delivers the news to Fonny. There’s a potent mix of elation and melancholy between them; the baby is welcome news, but Fonny’s imprisonment is discouraging to them both. However, Tish remains optimistic that by the time the baby is born Fonny will be free again.
In more ways than one, Jenkins uses the first scene in Beale Street to set the tone for the movie. Not only does this scene establish the central point of conflict in the movie, but also it articulates the dichotomy that lies at the heart of the movie.
The glass between Tish and Fonny may seem like nothing more than a set piece, but it automatically cues the audience into how Tish and Fonny’s lives have diverged as a consequence of Fonny’s false arrest and how law enforcement institutions exercise their inexorable power over black lives. It also keenly mirrors the narrative structure of the movie
Whereas Moonlight is composed of three different time periods from the story’s protagonist life, If Beale Street Could Talk offers a bifurcated narrative; As we follow Tish and her family’s attempt to free Fonny, the movie moves backwards in time, showing us the events that precipitated Tish’s pregnancy and Fonny’s arrest. There is a subtle yet stark contrast between the movie’s two timelines; one about falling in love, the other about fighting for love.
Jenkins, no doubt cognizant of how devastating the story of Fonny’s false imprisonment is, balances the mood of the movie by showing how Tish and Fonny fell in love. Of course, by showing how they fell in love, the movie only increases the intensity of the frustrations and sorrow surrounding Fonny’s arrest.
Yet in spite of the devastating circumstances that shadow the film, Jenkins doesn’t let a somber mood overpower Beale Street. In fact, the general tone of the film is far more optimistic, regarding the future as bright even if present circumstances don’t comply.
It’s hard not to rush to give Jenkins’ credit for the film’s sublime narrative and emotional balance. After all, that’s the power of a director as confident and empathetic as him. Jenkins works in such a visually rich and textured space that even the smallest moments leave you in awe.
Both Moonlight and Beale Street treat place and time as characters that deserve as much attention as the actors in the story. As such, Jenkins makes every scene, every space, ever detail real; the liquor poured into a glass to celebrate the baby, the smoke from cigarettes shared between two old friends, the music playing on a record player as two lovers share a bed. Jenkins brings these things to life, imbuing this fictional world with greater authenticity.
By bringing these worlds to life in a way that feels real for the audience, Jenkins allows himself the freedom to explore less conventional storytelling methods. His penchant for using a more lyrical visual style never feels grating because he makes it so clear to the audience what is being said and what is being felt. Jenkins’ choice to eschew more obvious plot machinations in favor of more subtlety never leaves the audience confused because the film offers such a clear, guiding voice.
It’s not hard to imagine how a less skilled filmmaker might falter in adapting Beale Street, but Jenkins makes it look easy. If Beale Street Could Talk is a stirring portrait of love and family that demands to be seen. With an incredible score, sublime cinematography, and pitch-perfect performances, Jenkins has delivered yet another movie that will enlighten audiences all over again.
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (out of 5)