Director Barry Jenkins creates social fables that resonate and speak to a particular time and place with vivid authenticity. His breakout feature, Moonlight, depicted coming of age in 1980s Miami with such sincerity that one could feel the emotions pouring out of the screen. Despite being fueled by a generous gift of lingering on all of its characters: Moonlight never reconciles its sobering social implications with its central character’s plight. An implied horrific cycle involving Chiron’s primary father figure- Juan (Mahershala Ali) being responsible for the drug addiction of the young boy’s mother- Paula (Naomie Harris), which results in Chiron’s unstable upbringing is seemingly dropped and never explored.
This problematic aspect is entirely solved in If Beale Street Could Talk. The film is a tragically poetic portrait of youthful innocence being slowly eroded, due to the crushing and sobering realities of society’s civil institutions. Adapted from James Baldwin’s critically acclaimed 1974 novel of the same name, the film is about a young African-American woman- Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne), who attempts to free her boyfriend, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephen James) from prison, before she gives birth to their child. Fonny has been imprisoned because of an accusation of rape, provided by a presumed strong testimony by a disgruntled cop- Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) and the victim- Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) who identifies the young man out of a police lineup.
If Moonlight was about the small moments that shaped a man’s life from childhood to adulthood, then If Beale Street Could Talk is about the struggles of the mundane. Jenkins’ camera is almost wielded like a documentarian as it showcases many characters in real-time going about their lives with a considerable amount of normality. One montage that has Tish describe and subsequently feels the effects of her baby’s persistent kicking, impresses in showcasing how this new change greatly impacts the standard elements of her daily life.
Jenkins contrasts these sequences with scenes that have Tish reflecting on how her relationship with Fonny has changed over the years. These scenes are engulfed in a pure blissful nostalgic haze- particularly one moment that has Tish and Fonny walking through a seemingly empty street in the rain. With minimal use of yellow and red within the confines of a widescreen shot, the moment has the romanticism of a vintage Hollywood musical, combined with a foreboding sense that the couple’s time together is short lived as its torn asunder by the inciting incident.
As Tish, Kiki Layne impresses in portraying a believable sense of innocence that grows into an acceptance of the sobering maturity that comes from her changing situation. In an Oscar-winning supporting turn, Regina King brings warmth and world-weariness, as Tish’s persistently supportive and loving mother. Stephen James strikes the biggest chord as Fonny. He balances a smooth and generous demeanour in the dreamlike appearances that permeate Tish’s memories with heartbreaking desperation, as a result of his incarceration.
If Beale Street Could Talk is about how injustice haunts every day living. It can cause us to become cynical, question long presumed truths and even want to emotionally outburst against the entire world. Barry Jenkins commendably allows the audience to see the long term effects of Fonny’s imprisonment on the characters. They scream, cry, and even look at themselves in the mirror with existential dread. Most movies would excise these incidental moments in the margins, but they fundamentally make If Beale Steet Could Talk feel real and raw.