If Beale Street Could Talk is the highly-anticipated follow-up to Barry Jenkins’s Academy Award-winning drama Moonlight. For those enamoured by the latter, the anticipation for Jenkins’s new film was mixed with a sense of apprehension. Was Moonlight a one-hit wonder, or would the director return with another acclaimed entry into his filmography?
Beale Street is based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name. It centres around the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alfonzo (Stephan James), both before and after Alfonzo is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Tish falls pregnant before Alfonzo is sentenced and is left fighting desperately for his freedom. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth between two different worlds: one in which love is dominant, sheltering our protagonists, and another which forces us to see the everyday, cruel realities and struggles African-Americans face.
Nicholas Britell’s enchanting score suffuses the film’s opening scene with a dreamy haze. No dialogue is required to feel the rich chemistry between Alfonzo and Tish; the music and the looks they give each other evoke all the tenderness required. This is ‘show don’t tell’ at its finest, and the film is at its most successful whenever these two are together. Watching this couple in the prime of their relationship is pure joy, particularly when they are looking to buy a house and make a home together. The playfulness and optimism in Alfonzo’s character leaves you grinning, and the subsequent scene fills you with heart-breaking hopefulness.
Jenkins has achieved something truly special here. He conveys the central romance with little dialogue, each shot revealing more and more about their relationship. Subtle glances and walks in the rain are carefully chosen and filmed with uncompromising sincerity. Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton have created a visually tasteful film, filled with distinct colour and clarity. Scenes are shot so that everything is clear, like we are looking through a window into the intimate and perfectly formed (but never claustrophobic) sphere of their existence.
Beneath this love story, however, lies a darker narrative focused on the intense race relations of the 1970s. The unfairness of Alfonzo’s arrest is heightened by his love for Tish and his irreproachable character. We witness Alfonso’s hope fade every time we return to him in prison, as he realises the odds will always be against people of colour. His false imprisonment highlights their fear of being accused and their guilt being automatically assumed. Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) personifies this fear, whose situation jolts you out of the romantic dream Jenkins has wrapped you in, and makes you aware that of the terrifying reality faced by the black community.
With Moonlight, Jenkins proved he could bring the best performances out of his cast, and he has done it again here. Each character brings something different to the film, whether it be the laid back, yet helpful father, Alfonzo’s bitter and resentful family, or the emotionally resilient Sharon (Regina King). King is especially brilliant. Her mothering adds another layer of melancholy, making us yearn all the more keenly for Alfonzo’s emancipation.
Everyone involved in the film is operating at the height of their powers, yet Beale Street is not without its problems. The ending is satisfying and important, but the build-up to the final scene was disappointing. One expects a powerful and emotionally-charged climax leading to a peaceful finale, but it simply never comes. Jenkins may be avoiding surrendering his actors to overwhelming emotion, but it would have been justified here. His cast are understated and unassuming throughout, so a single dramatically unrestrained scene would have been even more moving. The non-linear structure also seems more of a bane than a boon. If we were unaware of Alfonzo’s arrest from the beginning and able to see the romance evolve chronologically, then the impact of the arrest would have been stronger.
Even with some directorial gripes, Jenkins still tells an important, personal story. The love between Alfonzo and Tish is soulful, hopeful and real, even in the film’s heavier moments. When paired with its beautiful score and visuals, Jenkins shows us two truly special people. In the end, If Beale Street Could Talk resonates with a single, bittersweet realisation: love cannot save us from everything, but without it we would be lost entirely.