If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018, Drama Narrative, Written by Barry Jenkins from the novel by James Baldwin, directed by Barry Jenkins. 119 minutes.
If Beale Street Could Talk, from Barry Jenkins, the writer/director of 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight, is a movie on fire. Sometimes it’s a low simmer of passion (the lovers on dates), others it’s an explosion of emotion burning down the room (a stand out early scene with both their families together). But one always feels the heat. The story is love, trials, and tribulations of young couple Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonnie” Hunt (Stephan James). She finds out she’s pregnant just after he’s put in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. We trace their relationship all their lives to this point, and follow as Tish and her family try to get Fonnie released from prison. On this plot hangs a true burning love of Tish and Fonnie, but also a discussion on how skewed the system is against those of color – in the obvious ways of the courts and cops, but also in housing, employment, and just how society treats those it keeps pushing down. Although this is set in the 70s, the message continues into today. If you don’t think there is a problem, you aren’t paying attention.
A film like this is an actor’s dream. Fantastic dialog brims with emotions, as does every pause and look. Great performances are made not just in what is said, but what isn’t between the lines. As Jenkins did in Moonlight, he built a fantastic cast and wrestles amazing performances from them all. Newcomer KiKi Layne and Stephan James (making a career in civil rights films after Selma and Race) have a natural chemistry. James has such sad eyebrows. Weird thing to note, I know, but I couldn’t stop thinking it. Regina King gives an understated and powerful show as Tish’s mother. She’s receiving accolades for it, and one can easily see why. I could go on about everyone else, but I won’t for sheer brevity.
“Every frame a picture” is a phrase that gets thrown around a great deal. If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that matches that sentiment. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton create a lush landscape in the urban jungle of the strets of New York City. I was continually awed by the beauty in every shot. Popping colors stand out in a dynamic frame. It’s hard to choose between this and Roma as the most well shot film of the year. Coureon and Jenkins are both directors in full control of the shot.
The only real issues I may have with the film lie in the third act. As the film doesn’t hit the usual beats (it is jazzy after all — cue Angela on The Office,“I don’t like jazz. Just play the right notes!”), and doesn’t build to a climax nor expected resolutions. I don’t desire to have standard beats, but it just peters out compared to the lead up. I won’t spoil what exactly happens – I literally wrote down those scenes then deleted “Bob, don’t ruin it!” This isn’t the type of movie to go to the big climax. Strange though, as there is a moment where Regina King goes to Puerto Rico that straight up took me out of the movie – everything before was in NYC so it was a jolt and is an expected step in that sort of plot, although it does not turn out the standard way. In the end, the results are fitting for the film and message and don’t really make a negative mark on the film after it wraps up and one lets the whole sit on them.
If Beale Street Could Talk is easily one of the best films of the year. A simmering love story built around a heartbreaking separation, filmed with beauty, and performed with perfection, it all comes together in a striking, important film.