MOVIE REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

(Image by Tatum Magnus for Annapurna via


Unequivocally, Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker who loves his subjects. It shows in the way he writes and in the way he shoots. His words and instructions evoke and elevate performance. His cameras see and seize grace. Actors and actions are allowed to astonish. The tagline of Jenkins’ long-sought James Baldwin passion project If Beale Street Could Talk offers the imperative command of “Trust in love.” Through his unmistakable talent, that request for faith is asked and answered by what stands as arguably the finest American film of 2018.

Craft and conscience are combined by Barry Jenkins to adapt Baldwin’s fifth novel, the poetic story of Clementine Rivers and Alfonzo Hunt, two young Harlem lifelong friends and lovers in the perilous 1970s played by newcomer KiKi Layne and Selma and Race breakout Stephan James. The film opens viewing the unmarried couple, who go by “Tish” and “Fonny,” from above as they walk through an idyllic park. The strings of the score illuminate a tenor wavering between serene and somber. By the time the lens reaches their height and their lines begin, we discern that this hand-in-hand stroll may be their last free one together as Fonny is being incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

Making circumstances more trying, Tish is pregnant with his child. The impending bundle of joy and the toilsome quest to clear Fonny’s name splinter strife amidst their respective families. Hers, led by her father Joseph (stage and screen vet Colman Domingo), mother Sharon (prolific TV regular Regina King), and big sister Ernestine (Chi-Raq’s Teyonah Parris), are happy, progressive, and supportive while his contentious holy roller mother Mrs. Hunt (Aunjunae Ellis of Ray and The Help) and vengeful sisters stagger in shame. Only Fonny’s self-defined hip father Frank (Michael Beach, also seen presently in Aquaman) from that side backs the necessary journey for securing his son’s freedom. Over the course of this developing dilemma, If Beale Street Could Talk waltzes between this dire present situation and the nostalgic, sunnier memories of Fonny and Tish’s past courtship.

LESSON #1: PAYING FOR AND CORRECTING WRONGFUL CRIMES — Taking place behind the scenes of Fonny serving time and Tish having to see the man she loves behind glass is the family measures and struggles. The two fathers become willing to break laws to earn money. Looming larger and travelling further, Regina King is going to win an Oscar for portraying the fervid gumption of Sharon to track down the restorative truth. How many non-fictional Fonnys, Tishes, and Sharons are there in our own penal system languishing unfairly? There are likely too many.

Everything bright and beleaguering orbits around the doublet of KiKi Layne and Stephan James in what may very well be the best love story of the year. It starts with their longing stares. The ways they look at each other, sometimes straight into the tight camera in moments that pierce our own souls, demonstrate a marvelous intimacy. Capping a year of striking film debuts by Lady Gaga in A Star is Born and Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, the DePaul graduate Kiki Layne completes a triumvirate of Oscar-worthy rookie female lead performances. Her voiceovers cut with courage and her closed eyes blink open to stir happiness out of sorrow. Stephan James matches her bravery and desire. The way he fidgets his hands, works the disarming power move of holding hers, and exhales with smirks that brighten his eyes when Tish is around,all show a soft side behind the strength enduring captivity.

LESSON #2: TRUE UNCONDITIONAL LOVE — That body language is all James Baldwin. Stepping forward, their characters’ words breathe and affirm the author’s verses of affection. The lines speak of unwavering commitment and the power of worth. “I belong to you” and “flesh of each other’s flesh.” “I’m yours and you’re mine, and that’s it” and “I understand what you’re going through, because I’m with you.” Each, with plain poignancy, are concrete and crushing.

The multitude of artistic beauty around the actors absolutely sings. Moonlight cinematographer James Paxton’s camera is a magnet for the miraculous. The gaze of his camera, often a woman’s perspective or those stunning stares, combs over each scene with an effective eye for essence. Laxton’s ever-moving manipulation swims within the differentiated symbolic saturation of colors between the two narrative halves. The soundscape provided by composer Nicholas Britell’s powerful score is equally evocative. A jazzy combination of trumpets and strings with period-era flavor, the motifs flutter for love at one moment and wilt to forlorn at reality the next. The feel of this entire film is incomparable.

All of these sumptuous and strenuous sways are the work of Barry Jenkins taking James Baldwin’s lengthy and verbose prose and shaping it into a carefully honed narrative fit for the visual storytelling of the motion picture art form. The power of Baldwin is in his words, combinations of asides and absolutes with both bountiful and poignant descriptive details in between. Every adapted letter from Jenkins telegraphs that gravity and projects these historical scenarios with towering relevance and parallels to present society. Effort and environment receive as high regard as the dialogue. Few films can tout this level of power in the verbal and nonverbal. So much of the drama, romance, and tension hit you and intensifies the whimsy. Through its sights and sounds, If Beale Street Could Talk is smashing and significant to present what is beautiful through all that is painful.

LESSON #3: THE MANY FORMS OF LOVE — This review started celebrating the director’s love of his subjects off-screen and peaked with unconditional love on-screen. If Beale Street Could Talk swells to include multiple layers of love that even become titles for tracks on Britell’s soundtrack. Spreading against many contexts, the religious agape, sensual eros, and brotherly philia all merge with Baldwin’s optimistic sensibilities for themes that go deeper and wider than simplistic other sagas. Let more of his words on love become motivation: “Remember, love is what brought you here. And if you’ve trusted love this far, don’t panic now. Trust it all the way.” Do the same and embrace this lovely film.