If Beale Street Could Talk review: Magical filmmaking that finds beauty in the most unlikely places

Barry Jenkins shoots the film in a hyper-lyrical fashion that evokes Terrence Malick at his best

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) - trailer

Director: Barry Jenkins; Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach. Cert 15, 119 mins

Barry Jenkins follows up on his Oscar-winning film Moonlight with the even more impressive If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. Shot in a hyper-lyrical fashion that evokes memories of Terrence Malick at his best, it is heavy on poetic voiceover and slow-motion closeups. Its characters sometimes seem to move in tune with the jazz and blues which fill the soundtrack. The story deals with racism, a miscarriage of justice, rape and family strife, but it has a beguiling dream-like feel throughout.

At the beginning and end of the film, Jenkins includes montages of black-and-white photographs of police brutality against African-American men. Jenkins’s screenplay carries frequent references to the prejudice and humiliation the black characters encounter on a daily basis, but his main interest is in their emotional lives. This is as much a romance as it is a crusading social drama.

Jenkins eschews linear storytelling, instead jumping backwards and forwards in time. Thankfully, the narrative is still easy to follow. Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) is the sensitive youngster trying to work out what to do with his life. Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) is the 19-year-old woman he falls in love with. She becomes pregnant but their relationship is put in jeopardy when he is thrown in jail on a trumped-up charge.

As in Moonlight, Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, fill the film with long, elaborate takes in which the camera glides around the characters. The director and his team give us plenty of time to admire the weave and fabric of the beautiful clothes the characters wear and to bask in the poetry of the street scenes. The film is shot in very lush colour.

Early on, Fonny and Tish are filmed from above, walking carefree and happy through New York. These images are contrasted with sequences showing prison visits in which they can’t touch each other and can only talk by telephone. “I hope that nobody has to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish murmurs in her plaintive voiceover.

One drawback in a film so full of grace notes is that the tone risks becoming overly reverential. Almost everything here, from shots of Fonny sculpting in a fog of cigarette smoke, to the lovemaking and even the prison visits, is filmed in a very self-conscious fashion.

The setting is New York in the 1970s. Anyone who has watched Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver knows this was an era of violence, corruption and sleaze on a monumental level, but Jenkins somehow makes the city seem like a modern-day Eden.

Fonny and Tish are likeable but very wholesome. Their fathers, who engage in a bit of petty larceny in the garment district to raise money for getting Fonny out of jail, are ultimately decent and selfless types too.

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

One of the best scenes in the film, and one of the least characteristic, is when the lovers’ families come together and Tish announces she is pregnant. This is greeted as joyful news by some of the relatives but Fonny’s very religious and very censorious mother, Mrs Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), starts haranguing Tish. The siblings join in, and a furious row breaks out. There are blows and some choice insults exchanged. After the gushing lovers’ talk between Fonny and Tish, it comes as a relief when, at last, characters swear, bicker and fight. Tish’s sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), gets the best and most vicious lines and puts them across with a relish which reminds you of the bickering couples in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Moments involving some well-known actors in small parts are less convincing. Dave Franco plays a kind-hearted landlord who offers to rent out space in a warehouse to the young lovers even though Fonny can barely pay his deposit. We see the landlord and Fonny pretending to move around invisible furniture and appliances as they try to convince Tish this empty space can indeed turn into a comfortable home. The scenes involving Fonny’s waiter friend, Pedrocito (Diego Luna), also grate a little. We don’t know who he is or how the friendship came about but Pedrocito will always provide Fonny and Tish with food and drink whether or not they can pay for it.

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

It’s refreshing that the film doesn’t become caught up in the legal drama around Fonny’s case. The white lawyer representing him is seen only in passing. Fonny has been set up by a racist and twisted system. Jenkins seems to have decided it is hardly worth dwelling too long on the minutiae of the court case similar to countless others.

Sometimes, the film runs into a dead end. In one sequence, Trish’s mother heads down to Puerto Rico to search for a key witness in Fonny’s case. So much fuss is made about the trip that we expect it to yield a moment of cathartic revelation at the very least. Instead, the mother has a very uncomfortable encounter with a vulnerable and distressed woman. One advantage of Jenkins’s elliptical, non-chronological approach is that whenever the story threatens to judder to a halt at points like this, he simply leaps back or forward in time.

His style is utterly distinctive. He is sensual when you expect him to be polemical. Beale Street may seem a little arch at times, but it is also magical filmmaking which looks for, and finds, beauty in the most unlikely places.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in