“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
Writer/director Barry Jenkins begins If Beale Street Could Talk with a quote from the source. Jenkins has brilliantly adapted James Baldwin’s 1974 novel and, in doing so, given voice to African-Americans everywhere who’ve been screaming about racism, injustice, and inequality for decades to little avail. Beale Street isn’t just pavement in Memphis, Tennessee, it’s America itself. However, Jenkins’s ambitions run even deeper. He doesn’t want to just tell us a story about race in America. He wants us to feel it. And he accomplishes the trick with something universal: romance.
Immediately, it’s apparent Jenkins’s film is working on a higher level. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” Baldwin’s dialogue begins the story also as Tish (KiKi Layne) laments her boyfriend’s unjust incarceration. Fonny (Stephan James) is in jail for a rape he didn’t commit. The situation isn’t new — a thousand movies are about innocent men in prison — but the poetry of it all is. Tish doesn’t mention the injustice of the arrest, or the politics of America. She’s heartbroken about the glass, about seeing the man she loves without being able to touch or feel him. Politics often overshadow humanity, in life as well as in film. Not here.
Fans of Jenkins’s past work, including the Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight, will notice the director once again urges his actors to speak directly to the camera, placing the audience in the characters’ shoes. The technique — the subjective camera — goes back to Alfred Hitchcock, who elevated the intensity of his thrillers with it. Jonathan Demme perfected the use in The Silence of the Lambs. But those filmmakers wanted to chill our bones. Jenkins uses the camera in another way. He wants us to empathize and imagine what lost love really feels like. That notion transcends race. Suddenly, we’re all the same. We all love. We’re all human.
Jenkins’s artistic work behind the lens only works, however, because of everyone in front of it. The Beale Street cast is special to watch. Layne, in her first feature, is a revelation as Tish. Her world is upended and she faces a foe larger than life, but she personifies hope. James is sensitive as Fonny, lending a true romantic lead to the film. And the supporting roles are all filled by incredible character actors: Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, and Diego Luna. The talent is overwhelming and the chemistry therein is something everyone should experience.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a romance. The racism, violence, dark humor, and everything else comes second. Usually, it works the opposite way in movies. Female characters typically play second-fiddle and romance is back-burnered for car chases. Jenkins subverts expectations by remaining steadfastly focused on the two lovers, Fonny and Tish, throughout his story. The cool framing and gorgeous lighting look amazing, but it’s the story that moves us — the romance of this impossible situation.
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