Barry Jenkins’ much-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight did not disappoint at its UK premiere. If Beale Street Could Talk is a lyrical and intensely moving adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name- the story of two young lovers in New Orleans torn apart by an unjust conviction and a deeply racist society.
Jenkins’ film operates on two separate timelines. The first, narrated by Tish, sees her fall in love with her childhood best friend Alonzo, or ‘Fonny’. The second, set in the present time, sees Fonny awaiting trial for the rape of Victoria Rodgers – a Puerto Rican woman who has mistakenly picked him out of a line-up. Whilst carrying Fonny’s child, Tish must negotiate their relationship through a glass panel, and, together with her family, help their lawyer to acquit Fonny of his charges. Although Fonny has two alibis, in this day and age both count for nothing, and a cruel white policeman has testified against him. Both families must put their faith in a young lawyer entirely removed from their own experience – they call him ‘a white boy with a college degree’- to navigate the shark-infested waters of the American Justice System on their behalf. Its an immense exercise in hope and trust for these characters, which is seldom repaid. A testament to the endurance of love, Beale Street is a deeply-felt and humane depiction of characters attempting to maintain vital bonds of kinship and belonging in a rigged system dependent on hatred and fear.
The performances are intimate and truthful, with an outstanding cast led by first-time actress KiKi Layne – her earnestness and naivety in front of the camera a perfect fit for the role – and an enigmatic and soulful Stephan James. Regina King and Colman Domingo are touching and funny in turn as Kiki’s supportive parents, and Teyonah Parris adds an acerbic wit and fiery kindness as her elder sister Ernestine. Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry puts in a moving performance as Fonny’s alibi Daniel Carty who has served his own false sentence and emerged a broken man. His face crumples as he tells Fonny ‘once you’re in there they can do with you whatever they want’- a chilling reminder of their complete lack of autonomy in American society. Jenkins aptly demonstrates the effect of structural violence in the domestic sphere, portraying small eruptions of physical violence which send shockwaves throughout families and homes. Most impacts are felt in the eyes of those that absorb them; often in Fonny and Tish’s steadfast, held gaze. Their trauma is projected inwards rather than outwards, bringing home the pervasive effects of persecution on the individual psyches of African-Americans. Occasionally Tish’s voiceover veers into a wider discussion of the brutality and injustice inflicted onto African-Americans in American culture, paired with a series of still black-and-white photos. This effectively serves to indicate the real tragedy of Fonny’s story – that it is not simply Fonny’s story but a horrifically common reality for many young black men in America, forced to forfeit their lives for crimes they have not committed.
What is most striking about Beale Street is the immense grace with which it narrates the ugliest injustices. At times it feels like the film is being directed by the jazz playing in the corner of every shot, the narrative fusing so naturally and organically with the visual imagery that it seems more akin to poetry. Nicholas Britell’s gorgeous score and James Laxton’s sumptuous cinematography are beautifully cohesive – the rich blues, yellows and oranges of their clothes and surroundings blending into each soulful note. Laxton’s camera is extremely intimate, orchestrating Tish and Fonny’s interactions like a lover itself and capturing the passionate improvisation of the artistic process as Fonny constructs his expressionistic abstract sculptures – his knife circling the wooden blocks like a hawk circling its prey.
Beale Street is undoubtedly a slow-burner. Its gentle offbeat ebbs and flows take some getting used to, and many might be alienated by its earnest depiction of romantic love. Yet Jenkins steers us through romance, tragedy and comedy with an assured stride, imbuing the entire film with a low-key yet intense tenderness, that seems at times like pain, others love and often a bittersweet mixture, and intermittently crescendos into moments of heartbreaking poignancy. It is rare to see a director who does not try to grab us, hook, line and sinker from the off, but has the confidence to allow his audience to acclimatise to his style. It is an honour to watch Jenkins develop and hone his craft, and perhaps a blessing to say that, though magnificent, this film is not perfect and that he certainly has greater things in store for us yet.
Image: Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture