Based on James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, Beale Street meets Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) at a crossroads. The childhood friends are deeply in love, now adults. But Fonny is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish is pregnant with their baby. The film flits between their past and present; the honeymoon glow of their earlier times together, infringed upon by occasions of muted passion behind glass. It’s not so much a checklist narrative about fighting against oppression, rather it’s a passionate arrangement of moments and movements, framed by adversity but not dictated by it.
Rose-tinted glasses don’t stop Jenkins from seeing injustice; his beating heart is worn by a heavy history systematic racism. Black and white photographs pause the sentimental flares, while Baldwin’s chilling words give Fonny’s friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) a powerful moment as he describes the ugly truth of life behind bars with a cold stillness. It’s a love story undercut with a need for survival, the need to believe in something better than the hardships that the world tries to normalise.
Through artful direction, hope and sadness go hand in hand. By giving vast attention to faces and moods, Jenkins designs meticulous portraits that capture the fragility of intense feelings. He chooses to match and oppose colours to create relationships: the sweater on the washing line winks at the cigarette pack on the table, with shades of green bouncing around the home and complimenting the yellow light as it hits the bottom of Fonny’s top lip.
The sky is only as bright and blue as Fonny and Daniel see it, and the rainbow shadows dance like animated angels in a rooftop scene that exhales some kind of humble magic. It would be easy to opt for limpid simplicity with the intensity of Baldwin’s words, but Jenkins’ heart is too big to leave anything to chance. Nicholas Britell follows his score for Moonlight with another evocative, mesmeric theme which weaves in and out of every spoken word, a moving thread giving life to objects just waiting for flight.
This is KiKi Layne’s first role. Watching her chemistry with Stephan James feels like a secret we’re lucky enough to be a part of, as her performance is raw and completely whole. There are no distractions or concessions in the way she offers her words, and she holds a gaze like it’s the heaviest, most important object in the world. As her mother, Sharon (Regina King) matches her indomitable love with earnest devotion – to her daughter, to her unborn grandchild, to her son-in-law.
Even when they’ve let go of each other’s hands or looked away, the love in Beale Street rolls off the screen in waves. A kiss is burned in your mind and fills your insides with butterflies long after you’re alone again. It might not change the world like the introspective portrait that won Best Picture, but If Beale Street Could Talk is a gift. James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins have put their trust in love on the line. We should be so lucky as to feel it for a little while.
Reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. If Beale Street Could Talk hits UK cinemas on 18 January 2019.
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