Review: If Beale Street Could Talk


Stories about the African-American experience are often best handled by those who are most familiar with it. One man tasked with sharing that experience in the past few years has been Barry Jenkins, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director whose most recent project is an adaptation of a well-renowned work of fiction.

Brooklynites Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) have been close friends since childhood, but have only recently entered into an intimate relationship. Their bond is under considerable strain at present, because Fonny has been charged and incarcerated for the sexual assault of a Puerto Rican mother – a crime he is innocent of. Adding to woes, Tish has discovered that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child, and fears that she may not be able to care for herself or their child without him.

Although Tish is anxious about what the future holds, the expectant mother is comforted by the knowledge that she has the love and support of her family, including sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and mother Sharon (Regina King), who is the most caring of all. Between them, the family are able to save enough money to hire a lawyer (played by Finn Wittrock), but with the judicial system skewed against Fonny, they have little reason to be optimistic about his release.

As the film begins, a quote attributed to James Baldwin – who wrote the novel on which If Beale Street Could Talk is based – elaborates on the significance of the title:

Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born.

The quote goes on to explain that every African-American was born on Beale Street, the meaning of which Baldwin wishes to be left to one’s interpretation. Despite his best intentions, it’s pretty obvious what Baldwin seeks to imply: that the experience of black people is universal, for they have to face the same prejudices no matter where they reside.

Those who have seen Jenkins’ previous feature, Moonlight, will find themselves accustomed to the approach he takes with Beale Street. The most noticeable traits shared between the two films include the use of neon, and natural light to illuminate the characters; the gentle, almost reassuring tone that helps to alleviate the plot’s bleaker moments, of which there are plenty; and the crediting of Nicholas Britell as composer, who on this occasion has crafted a jazz-based soundtrack with an emphasis on woodwind instruments.

Less recognisable to audiences will be the cast, which comprises of newcomers, character actors and the occasional famous face – members of the latter category include Diego Luna (Rogue One) as a local waiter; Pedro Pascal as a Puerto Rican native; Dave Franco as a Jewish landlord; and Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s friend Daniel, a big, loveable, teddy-bear of a man. Not one of the actors puts a foot wrong in Beale Street, least of all leads Stephan James and KiKi Layne, who give stellar breakthrough performances.

Stephan James (left) with Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk

In addition to having a fantastic cast, If Beale Street Could Talk is an impeccably-written picture. What’s most striking about the screenplay is how all of the characters speak so beautifully and eloquently, despite their impoverished backgrounds and the Seventies setting, which is ever-so-blissful to the ear – even if the dialogue does linger somewhat. Additionally, the film’s non-linear structure never proves a distraction, expertly shifting between the bleak “present” and the more idyllic past of Fonny and Tish.

Even more elegant is the manner in which Beale Street depicts the romance between its lead protagonists. Rather than engage in lust, or thrust themselves onto each other, Fonny and Tish have a very sweet relationship that sees the pair slowly become intimate. The sex scenes are exceptionally well-executed – what could have been awkward or uncomfortable viewing is instead graceful and delicate, not unlike the scene in Moonlight where the two protagonists express their love.

Praise like that highlights the biggest problem with Beale Street: its greatest attributes are shared with the previous film made by Jenkins. As of such, his latest picture feels a tad too safe, and less impactful than what it ought to be. His constant harking back to Moonlight may not please those wanting something fresh and ground-breaking, but at least Jenkins refrains from using the same actors in his follow-up production, or inserting a white saviour into the narrative, or patronising the audience about racism.

If Beale Street Could Talk is another outstanding effort from Barry Jenkins, who is demonstrating all the signs of an auteur in the making, an artist that will have people talking for many generations to come. Once again, he has assembled a great cast to tell a provoking story in the most beautiful way possible, thereby adding another classic to his filmography.

4 stars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s