Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Sings of Love and Race in America

Watching a couple walk through the rain in Harlem will be one of the enduring images seared into my brain. The bright red of the umbrella, juxtaposed with the colors of the night in the city, makes for one beautifully composed shot in a film full of them.  If Beale Street Could Talk serves as director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, the Best Picture winner just two years ago. His ability to capture a portrait, an image, and a mood has never been a question, and Beale Street thrives in these personal moments. Beale Street is one of the artistic achievements of the year and features incredible performances from top to bottom to sell a stunningly beautiful, but tragic narrative.

The film follows Tish, a young woman (KiKi Layne) who has just discovered she became pregnant. She is in love with the father of the child, a young artist named Fonny (Stephan James). The two have a whirlwind romance, and their future seems bright. However, when Fonny is accused of sexual assault, he is thrown in jail. From the outside, Tish and her family (Regina KingColman DomingoTeyonah Parris) fight to save Fonny from going to jail for a crime he never committed.

The world of 1960s Harlem pops off the screen, filled with colorful and purposeful shots. Jenkins crafts the screenplay to play into the beauty of this section of the city, a world that brims with positivity and life. It is easy to understand how the two are in love with each other and their world, a paradise that exists within the city. While neither of the young lovers is wealthy, they explore the world and find the nooks and crannies for their love to take hold. Jenkins succeeds in bringing a period of Harlem to life in stunning detail, both visually and through his screenplay.

The screenplay absolutely crackles with energy, even when that energy turns dark on occasion. In some instances, Jenkins takes the story to the dark corners of America’s history with race relations. Perhaps no moment is more pronounced than a scene featuring Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel, who plays a childhood friend of Fonny’s who reconnects with him. He is a man that seems full of life and happiness, but when it’s revealed that he went to prison, his mood shifts and takes him to a dark place. The sequence will shake you, and not only features a brilliant performance from Henry, but also displays masterful writing and control of tone from Jenkins. He explores the psychological trauma of being black in America but also showcases the joy and hope that it brings. It’s a beautiful duality that Jenkins captures, a feat that would make James Baldwin proud.

The film has at least a half dozen great performances, and a large ensemble flows through the film. Layne and James anchor the film, and in a less competitive year, Layne would have made my 5 in actress (I had her at 6). She brilliantly holds the film together and shows off genuine moments of happiness, depression, hope, and heart. It’s a very leveled performance, so expect to hear her name a lot in the future. James shines bright throughout, giving an extremely charismatic and charming performance. Regardless of who he is up against, whether it be Layne, Henry, Diego LunaDave Franco, or Ed Skrein, he elevates their performances. It’s collaboration through and through, and you can read it in every scene. When he needs to get emotional, he brings down the house. James showcases spectacular range.

Meanwhile, the parents and family in the film all excel as well. Regina Hall and Colman Domingo are both special performers through and through. The love each of them injects into the scenes is palpable. You can read their worry and joy on their faces, and Jenkins gets them to deliver brilliant performances. When Hall has her showcase scenes, one in a discussion with Fonny’s accuser, and another in a mirror, you’ll struggle to keep your emotions in check. Domingo plays the proceedings with a smoothness and level of support you’d never imagine. Yet he knows the stakes, and his calmness helps set the tone for how serious the events on screen truly have become. Even Parris has scene-stealing tendencies in a small part, but her support of both Tish and Fonny really plays well. It’s a stellar cast, and in the hands of a less capable director, we would be complaining about underusing characters and actors.

If Beale Street Could Talk does not only thrive on its performances. Perhaps the two most striking elements of the film are the cinematography and score, both of which sell the vivid world we step into. James Laxton proves he might be one of the five best living cinematographers. There is little doubt he is the best at extreme close-ups, but his general use of framing is stunning throughout the film. Each frame of this movie could be hung in an art gallery. Finally, the score from Nicholas Brittell is simply breathtaking. It is sad and remorseful when it needs to be but often swells with hopeful cues. Brittell quickly showcased that he was one of the great composers of his generation. This score seals that distinction.

Overall, If Beale Street Could Talk is not a happy story. Yet it is an essential one to tell about race in America. Despite the fact that some will view it as tragedy, it is also a story of love and beauty. It is a story about the communities we live in, and the worlds we inhabit. Most of all, it is a story that needed to be told. Jenkins crafted another masterpiece here, and with any luck, we should hope that Jenkins continues his amazing streak in the years to come.

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