There is an undeniable lyricism to If Beale Street Could Talk that is infectious. Like a soul song that moves through one’s heart, the film evokes numerous emotions with each eloquent note it hits.
Based on James Baldwin’s novel, the latest work from Barry Jenkins is an absorbing love story about two individuals whose only crime was being born into a system rigged against them. Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since they were little kids, but it took years for their love to blossom. Now at age 19, Tish is pregnant and looking to start a new life with Fonny. However, their plans are derailed when he is arrested for a crime he did not commit.
Adapting Baldwin’s intricate plot and vibrant words is no easy task, but Jenkins almost makes it look effortless. Understanding the rich romance at the story’s core, one cannot help but fall in love with every aspect of this film. From the way he captures the flirtatious gaze of the characters, or how he seductively builds up the sense of anticipation by having the camera study the various body parts, Jenkins’ depiction of the language of love is hypnotic.
The soothing romantic rhythms of the film make the social undercurrents even that more heartbreaking. As with his previous films, Medicine for Melancholy and the Oscar winning Moonlight, Jenkins weaves in searing commentary on the ways that America has systemically been designed to keep black people oppressed. Whether it is something as subtle as landlords refusing to rent out apartments to dark skinned individuals, or psychological effects from being profiled and incarcerated, the film’s message about the depths of injustice is just as powerful as its statements on love.
Aside from Jenkins’ masterful direction, which ensure his distinct cinematic voice is never overshadowed by Baldwin’s words, If Beale Street Could Talk thrives thanks to the outstanding performances from the ensemble cast. Two standouts in particular are Regina King, who is magnificent as Tish’s diligent mother, and Brian Tyree Henry, who gives a heartbreaking turn as Fonny’s recently released from prison pal Daniel.
Deeply romantic while simultaneously carrying a fiery torch for social change, If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterful piece of cinema.