If Beale Street Could Talk is many things—a legal drama, an essay on race, a damning look at the criminal justice system in the early ’70s, but at its core, it’s as true and honest a love story as we’ve seen in the past year. And when 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) opens the film with the line: “You ready for this?”, you’ll find out very quickly that you’re not. Director Barry Jenkins has followed-up his Best Picture win for 2016’s Moonlight with a marvel of a film that almost defies description but is worth every accolade it’s received.
Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, Beale Street tells the story of Tish and her man, 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James). They’ve known each other since childhood but only lately discovered their mutual affection, and when the movie begins, we learn that Tish is three months’ pregnant and that Fonny has recently been sent to jail. (His offense isn’t revealed until halfway through the movie.)
Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay, uses a clever interspersing of flashbacks to tell the couple’s story and push the plot forward. We not only see them sharing baths together as little kids but also their going on their first date and, in one of the film’s most captivating scenes, spending their first night together. The latter is a marvelous moment, and it’s presented beautifully; it could almost be an award-winning live-action short all on its own.
Where other filmmakers would have catered to the shrinking human attention span, Jenkins is content to simply let a scene play itself out (and then some). Along with providing us the intimacy that comes with having the characters gaze straight into the camera, he takes his time with Beale Street and lets the plot breathe, granting us the chance to take in these characters, their struggles, and, most importantly, their love for each other. It’s a strategy that’s almost jarring at first, but it thankfully doesn’t take long for us to recognize and appreciate Jenkins’ decision. And the hue-driven cinematography by James Laxton and the genius, jazz-inspired score by the brilliant Nicholas Brittel perfectly tie Beale Street together as a complete package.
Whether we stroll through the streets of Harlem with Tish and Fonny after their search for a new apartment or sit at their makeshift dining room table (next to the middle-of-the-room bathtub) as Fonny and his old friend Daniel (an utterly compelling Brian Tyree Henry) discuss prejudice over beer and cigarettes, we’re sucked completely into not only the lives of the characters but the drastic challenges of the time.
As with Moonlight, Beale Street doesn’t get tied up with a pretty little bow and yet remains a wholly satisfying film. It’s an intimate, heartfelt look at a snapshot of the lives of two beautiful people, and though we only get two be with them for a little while, memories of them will linger for a good while to come.