Love brought you here. If you trusted love this far, trust it all the way.
Remember the Oscar envelope mix-up of 2017, when everyone thought La La Land had bagged Best Picture, only to discovered that the winner was in fact Moonlight? Well Barry Jenkins, creator of that award-laden film (it also achieved no.1 on my Top Ten List that year, thereby acquiring a coveted Ed) is back with If Beale Street Could Talk, a tale of similarly quiet power and emotional intensity. It's another love story, but this love faces a whole other set of obstacles.
Adapted with pith yet sensitivity from James Baldwin's novel of the same name, Beale Street tells of Tish Rivers, a young woman in early '70s Harlem looking to make a future with her childhood friend Alonzo 'Fonny' Hunt. The romance between the two is palpable, but life and America's cruel racism shatter their happiness as Fonny - a talented carpenter and wood sculptor - faces trial for a crime he could not possibly have committed. Her partner languishing in jail, Tish then discovers that she is carrying his child. Her family must rally around both to support her in the pregnancy and to help prove his innocence - in the face of a court system skewed against them.
Rage and beauty are the words that come to mind looking back on this film. The former stems from Baldwin's writing (his memoir Remember This House inspired scorching 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro) via Jenkins' unsparingly honest screenplay. The anger isn't apparent at first, so absorbed is the camera in Tish and Fonny's romance, but it comes in flashes and then you feel it seeping from the characters' souls right into the celluloid. Not ranting anger either, but a softly expressed understanding of the ugliness that is dyed into the fabric of American society.
As for beauty - the whole film is shot through with it, starting with the warm reds and golds of the colour palette that bathe both the central relationship and scenes with Tish's family. (Moonlight was correspondingly tinged with blue.) The cinematography is smooth, James Laxton's camera gliding slowly between characters during the film's many vignettes, or lingering point-of-view on their faces during deep emotional encounters. Meanwhile Nicholas Brittell jazz-classical score compliments all the story's shades of love and fear in gorgeous and unexpected ways. In short, the Oscar-winning team is back and helping put Jenkins' unique stamp on every scene.
It's all memorably acted too. Kiki Layne and Stephan James - both fresh faces to me - portray love and friendship with a conviction rarely attained on screen. He's charming and sensitive, she's innocent but with burgeoning strength and determination as reality bites. Together they're deeply affecting, whether physically expressing their love to Brittell's rich score or struggling to communicate through prison glass - and the camera loves them both whatever they're going through.
The supporting cast have multiple moments to shine too. Colman Domingo is warm and hilarious as Tish's dad, Teyonah Parris feisty and protective as her sister, while Widows' Brian Tyree Henry reveals unexpected layers as Fonny's ne'er-do-well friend Daniel. But it's Regina King as the strong and compassionate Rivers family matriarch who walks away with the top supporting honour (as she may well do on Oscar night). A sequence where she goes on a very specific errand of mercy lifts her performance to greatness.
If you found Moonlight slow and ponderous, then it's unlikely Beale Street will win you over. While there are punchy moments of drama, this is an introspective and often dreamlike experience occasionally tipping into nightmare. It's a deeply felt and timely piece of work that confronts the pervasive and corrosive nature of racism, while celebrating bonds of love that the hatred only serves to strengthen. Barry Jenkins' film is an early valentine - with heart, guts and a visual poetry that's become his signature style.
Gut Reaction: Some out-loud laughter; less bodily contortion as during Beautiful Boy, but a lot of deep-down feels - both the agony and the warmth.
Memorable Moment: Sharing baby-joy with the 'in-laws'.
Ed's Verdict: 9/10. If Moonlight announced Jenkins' arrival to many, then this one confirms his standing as one of the great modern cinema auteurs. Now where's his Best Picture nomination?