In early 2017, I saw and reviewed Moonlight – Barry Jenkins’ remarkable coming of age story about sexuality, poverty and masculinity. Almost two years later, to the day, I am sitting down to review the directors’ next film, If Beale Street Could Talk. American movie romance doesn’t come much more sublime than this. Director Barry Jenkins follows up his Oscar-winning gem in triumphant form. Never has there been a stronger case for a director to be worthy of winning Best Picture two years running; alas, astonishingly this year If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t nominated in either the Best Picture or Best Director category. Jenkins’ latest is based on the novel by James Baldwin, whose life and work were the subjects of multi-award winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro two years ago. If Beale Street Could Talk is a story of the blooming love between two lifelong friends and the troubles and obstacles they face as African-Americans living in early 1970s New York. The film centres around two things, Tish and Fonny’s devotion to one another and the imprisonment of Fonny, when he is falsely accused of a violent rape. On either side are the couples’ families – for the most part, loving and supportive but equally scared and concerned about the situation the pair find themselves in. Whilst their relatives do all they can to fight for Fonny’s freedom, Tish and Fonny both reflect on their time together, from blissful childhood memories to their more recent passion and infatuation for one another.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in many ways a traditional love story – using tropes that, if handled any less delicately, could be perceived as cliche. Thankfully, Jenkins’ astute attention to the smallest details and the emphasis on character, time and place makes for a deeply romantic and seductive piece of cinema. Much like Moonlight, the film’s intoxicating qualities are largely driven by a collection of remarkable performances from an all-black central cast. At its heart, Stephen James and Kiki Layne (in her film debut) provide a tenderness as lovers on the brink. As individual actors they are superb; together they are sublime. The film’s memorable love scene is a particular example of this in which few words are needed as what needs to be said is done so through the way they look at each other. It’s a sensitive and sensual stand out moment of the film. Regina King is exceptional in the supporting role of Tish’s mother – whose maternal guidance anchors her overwhelmed daughter. Meanwhile, the trumpet of Miles Davis, the soothing tones of Nina Simone and the reoccuring embellishments of a heartfelt original score lift the performances, swirling around the seductive cinematography. Barry Jenkins is not just a beautiful storyteller but a filmmaker who understands the importance of all the technical elements. He’s a master of his craft – transporting audiences to very particular times and places. If Beale Street Could Talk is a film with more than just heart but real, true soul. It’s euphoric filmmaking from one of today’s greats.
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