If Beale Street Could Talk is a poetic dramatisation of the black experience in America. It tells the simple story of a first love against the backdrop of systemic racism that was prevalent in 1970s America, and it tells it beautifully.
Director, Barry Jenkins, crafts a compelling romance that drips with both passion and poignancy. The long, lingering close-ups etch the screen with images illustrated with a deep and profound first love. Kiki Layne and Stephen James have an intoxicating chemistry infused with eloquence and apprehension.
The story follows a young couple separated by injustice. Fonny, played by James, is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, leaving his lover, Tish, to deal with her pregnancy without him.
“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” says Tish at the beginning of the film, following a scene coloured by an unspoken romance. Love is often communicated by longing gazes and pregnant pauses.
Jenkins is not afraid of allowing shots room to breathe, with certain shots speaking a thousand words of dialogue. Silence is treated with respect, as opposed to fear, and is often threaded a soundtrack tinged with hope and melancholy.
The story starts strong but is certain plot points are stretched thin throughout the film. The film plays like a character piece. It is laced with searing character moments that portray the nuance and pain inherent to the black experience. Often, a single scene is used to illuminate the depth and breadth of a character.
There is a scene early on that involves almost every character. Tish informs her and Fonny’s family that she is pregnant. The character dynamics within the scene reveal their individual personalities and motivations. The contrast between both families creates both hilarious comedy and heartbreaking tragedy within moments of one another, yet the tone remains consistently grounded in realism.
Tishs’ family, the Rivers, are overwhelmingly warm and supportive, while Fonny’s, the Hunts, are slightly more complex. While Fonny’s father initially appears to be a kind and genial man, his insecurity is exposed by his relationship with both his wife and daughters.
His wife’s defining characteristic is her sanctimonious religious attitude, which she imposes onto those around her in a manner that is, paradoxically, devoid of compassion. She scorns her husband’s attempts at joy and undermines him at every turn. This is one example of the many character nuances present throughout the film.
One of the movie’s more memorable moments stems from the performance of Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel Carty, a friend of Fonny’s fresh out of prison. The potent pain he paints purely through his expression is nothing short of phenomenal. Despite appearing in only one scene, he steals the show.
A scene involving the father of both families is another standout moment that sketches the emotional and social struggles that they both face. While initially the audience is shown the characters’ personas, their true nature is revealed through realistic, grounded dialogue.
Even minor characters, such as the rape victim, played excellently by Emily Rios, are given small moments to convey the evocative experience that comprises their characters.
While the characters evoke emotional investment, the film falls down somewhat with regards to plot. Characters shine in individual moments, but the overarching story is somewhat lacking. The story is not trying to be extraordinary, the point seems to be that these experiences are ordinary, yet this feature lends itself to dissatisfaction.
Essentially, If Beale Street Could Talk is a triumphant cinematic portrayal of the black experience. It uses layered, fascinating characters in singular, compelling moments to enhance a classic, simple story. The romance is touching, thoughtful and relatable.
Again, the film could be best described, as a simple story told very well, masterfully, even
If Beale Street Could Talk comes to Irish cinemas in early 2019.