If Beale Street Could Talk

Jacob Richardson | 18/02/2019

A stunningly rendered vision that excoriates the US justice system while never losing its roots as a compelling romance.


Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) are a young black couple in love in Harlem in the 1970s. The only problem for pregnant Tish is that Alonzo, or ‘Fonny’ as he is so nicknamed, has been incarcerated for a vicious crime he did not commit. As she tries to fight a system stacked against her and people of colour, Tish remembers the courting process and budding romance between her and the man she loves, locked behind bars.


Barry Jenkins steps back into the spotlight after his Oscar-winning film Moonlight, and manages to live up to all expectations. Working once again with cinematographer James Laxton, he crafts a moving, emotional, and compelling piece of art, that drifts along at a just-enough pace to enrapture.


The story is somewhat bare, focusing on a fairly cut-and-dried progression through this heartbreaking yet unsurprising court case. The intrigue comes from the frequent interjections of Tish’s memory, as she reminisces on, and mourns, her old life. What is compelling about these bursts of love in an otherwise hopeless tale is the intimacy and stark reality with which they are told.


One recalls the incredible focus on music in their first sexual encounter; the way in which the record player slowly sputters out and we are left with the animalistic grunting of the two characters. Jenkins lingers on the record player, giving us a glimpse behind the all too often sheeny Hollywood interpretation of life itself, yet never fully lifting the veil.


His ability to linger, his trust in his audience to follow him no matter where he goes, is shown too in a scene between Fonny and his old friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), recently out of the clink himself. As Daniel, clinging to a borrowed cigarette like it is the only thing rooting him in this unfamiliar world, lifts his jovial demeanour and dives into the horrors that befell him in prison, Jenkins slow camera movement between the two, and willingness to hold on a reaction, or let a pause stretch for what seems like minutes at a time, helps Henry’s performance take on a new life. As Jenkins cuts to Tish in the kitchen, surreptitiously crying at the injustice befallen Carty, one realises too that the direction on display here helped Henry deliver a performance that would leave most audiences in a state like Tish’s.


Outside of this, it is Jenkin’s connection with his cinematographer that delivers some of the most joyous moments of the film for a cinema lover. In particular, a sculpting scene with Fonny, where a cyclical camera movement captures the life of the piece, the energy in the man and an indelible wisp of smoke hanging precipitously in the air like all of Fonny’s hopes and dreams. Together, Jenkins and Laxton have made a film whose visual artistry surpasses Moonlight.


One may like to make comparisons here to Jenkins Oscar-winner, and certainly they feel much of a piece; the steady hand of this assured second-time director felt keenly across both screens. Yet, while Beale Street is a worthy follow-up, it isn’t quite as magical as Moonlight. The issue comes down to the story, and undeniably this is a slow moving (glacially so) piece, but for those who felt Moonlight was too temporal, here we are given more story in the traditional sense to grab a hold of. It is a shame that in some respects we wind up feeling less because of it. Beale Street might have more to talk about, and might talk about it in a more flashy, visually compelling way, but it always feels like it has less to say.


A stunningly beautiful film, a worthy sophomore feature, and a compelling drama.