After Moonlight was released a few years ago, I was excited to see what Barry Jenkins would do next. The talent he showed in Moonlight proved he was a director to watch, and he made a big move by making the first film adaptation of the works of James Baldwin. With this film, Barry Jenkins firmly establishes himself as one of the most soulful directors working today.
The film follows Tish and Fonny, a young black couple living in Harlem in the 1970s, with the film focusing on the blossoming of their romantic relationship and the difficulties they face after Fonny is falsely accused of rape, whilst Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child. Now as a love story, the film is exceptional. I don’t quite know how to describe it but whenever Tish and Fonny are on screen together, everything about those scenes just screams love and it just presents this feeling of beauty throughout the film. There were numerous points throughout the film where I was close to tears just because of how beautiful the film is. The film also does a great job exploring themes like police repression of the black population, racism in the housing market, the pressure that is placed on unmarried parents (even by immediate family) and the psychological damage that is done to rape victims, and I’m sure there are even more themes in the film that I’ve missed. In lesser hands all of these themes could have pilled on top of each other and prevented the central love story from taking centre stage, but the use of non-linear storytelling allows each theme to work and the different plot strands are given time to breathe, allowing the audience to feel the world the characters are living in.
Even with an incredible script, the film would have fallen apart if it wasn’t cast right, and this is an area that the film excelled in. KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny are incredible. On an individual level, Tish is excellent at showing the concern she has for Fonny whilst he’s in prison and the growing pressure she faces as she tries to get him free and dealing with the difficulties of pregnancy, whilst James effectively shows his fear at being in prison and not being able to be with his loved ones. Together, their chemistry is electric. The way they interact with each other, combined with Jenkins’ script, just gives the feeling of love that is incredibly difficult to pull off, but is nailed here. For the other performances, Regina King is excellent as Sharon, Tish’s mum, showing the love she feels for her daughter and how she would do anything to help her, with an incredible piece of acting from King involving her putting a wig on with no dialogue, but the way King moves and reacts in that scene just tells us so much about her character. Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel, Fonny’s friend, is excellent in his scenes, giving delivering one of the most haunting scenes in the film, the fear and pain he brings to his performance being powerful. Colman Domingo as Joseph, Tish’s dad, and Michael Beach as Frank, Fonny’s dad, show their sense of masculinity and desire to provide for their family no matter what effectively, whilst Aunjanue Ellis as Mrs Hunt, Fonny’s mum, brings this sense of religious entitlement to the character that makes her an effective character for the thematic weight of the film. There are also good world building performances in small roles from Emily Rios, Pedro Pascal, Dave Franco and Ed Skrein, each of them adding to the themes of the film, but in ways I don’t really want to spoil.
On a technical level, the film is excellent. The cinematography and direction has this warmth to it that shows just how much Tish and Fonny love each other on a visual level, with this also reflected in the colour scheme of the costumes and how the costumes for Tish and Fonny change throughout the film. The stand out technical element though is the music. Quite simply, this is some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard composed for a film in a long time, giving off the feel of the 1970s and having this tenderness that just adds to the beauty of the love story.
Overall, If Beale Street Could Talk is a stunning piece of work. This is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a long time, creating a touching romance which is filled with thematic weight and power, making the film an incredibly rewarding experience. With this, Barry Jenkins has established himself as one of the most important voices in modern film.
My Rating: 5/5