If Beale Street Could Talk sees Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephen James) and Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (KiKi Layne) as a young, Harlem-based couple, in 1970s New York. A non-linear narrative tells the tale of their falling in love, having been the closest of friends in childhood, fighting through the prejudices of the era in finding somewhere to live, and dealing with hostile law enforcement. Then their lives are shattered as Fonny is incarcerated on a rape charge that is demonstrably false, just as Tish finds herself to be pregnant. Can she fight the in-built unfairness of the system to free her man before their child is born?
In the wrong hands If Beale Street Could Talk (hereafter “Beale Street”) could have been a disaster. Director Barry Jenkins has followed the Academy Award-winning Moonlight with a piece of work that demonstrates.. well, it’s less about inherent talent, and more about extraordinarily good judgement.
For our first controversial statement: in lesser hands Beale Street – for all the worthiness of its subject matter – would be a TV film. Read that summary above again: “…their lives are shattered as Fonny is incarcerated on a rape charge that is demonstrably false, just as Tish finds herself to be pregnant. Can she fight the in-built unfairness of the system to free her man before their child is born?” That has TV melodrama written all over it – if handled badly.
READ MORE: Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Film Review
So many parts of Beale Street could leave the viewer wondering which cliché they’d be bumping into next. The film starting with narration from Tish – the sort of thing we got in 90s films such as Indecent Proposal – a worthy retelling from our lead. The fractured narrative / slow reveal, so beloved of the Tarantinos and Shyamalans of this World. The portrayal of a love story between two young people so in love that it could border on a perfection that few of us ever really experience. Even the portrayal of the couple’s two families has to walk a fine line to avoid hitting some very stock tropes. The novel on which this was based – penned by James Baldwin in 1974 – is evidently a very highly lauded one; but transferred to film, and with subject matter set aside, the detail here is extraordinarily difficult to get across in a way that doesn’t hold the film’s standard down to that of the mini-series.
In absolute terms, Beale Street is a terrific film. In terms relative to the pitfalls into which it could have fallen, it is almost a masterpiece. This is due almost entirely to Barry Jenkins.
So why only almost? To go back to Jenkins’ last feature, Moonlight may have been an excellent piece of work, but the three time periods in which the story operated left some feeling as though we were seeing disjointed, incomplete tales. This really coalesced only at the end of the final part, when it was clear that the passage of time was there to demonstrate how profound Chiron’s loneliness had been, and how long he had been living that way – due in no small part to his sense of not belonging, because of his sexual orientation (other takes on the themes of that film are available). What works for the character doesn’t always work for the story, and that seemed to be the case there. The dropping in and out of his life was the only way the themes would work, and the only way we could take Chiron’s journey: but it was distancing.
READ MORE: Beautiful Boy – Film Review
Beale Street is somewhat more straightforward, but we see Fonny in prison long before we see the events that led him there. We see that, in turn, long before the run-in with a racist police officer (Ed Skrein in a small, but memorable turn) leading to the vendetta that would send him to prison. The story unfolds slowly, in part, it is certainly arguable, precisely because without those switches and little reveals, we would be risking TV movie territory. That leaves Jenkins an impressive two-for-two, but with two entries in his canon in which the actual story is the weakest facet: a difficult observation given the subject matter in the two films.
It would be tempting to argue that where Jenkins’ strength lies is in his character work. Whilst that is true of Moonlight, with the very insular Chiron laid open for us to see by the end of that film, it is less true here – or, rather, not in the traditional sense. More accurately, Jenkins’ strength lies in presenting character moments in a way that feel authentic, extremely real, and are always consistent with what we do know of them. Tish remains a somewhat blank slate in this film – likely a consequence of the character being so young – with her only real clear traits being her love for Fonny, and her unshakable belief in him. Fonny fares a little better, as we get to see his reaction to his friend Daniel’s story of mistreatment at the hand of the US legal system, and his own tender treatment of Tish.
What the characters have, though, are a series of moments that reveal who they are. This isn’t about an arc, a background, or a direction of travel. By those measures, the film is as fractured as its predecessor. For a key example: sex scenes in films are generally unnecessary. Almost always, in fact. For all the actor-ly protestation of “It was needed for the part”, or “the story required that we should see that side of the characters”, it is virtually always about selling tickets. By contrast, Beale Street has a love scene without which the film would have lost much of the flavour of Tish and Fonny’s relationship but, more important than that, also such a vital insight into Fonny’s essentially gentle nature, and a love for Tish that goes beyond their here and now. We see them as children, and now see them, as young adults, move their relationship to the physical. Tish clearly wants this, but is deeply nervous. The way Fonny gently guides her, and sets the mood to calm her, followed by physical contact that has been thought through by actors and director, is of great importance to how we view these people. Tish will be with Fonny forever, as she knows he will be there for her, and there will never be anyone else. Small moments like this sell a narrative that could, otherwise, play as blind faith.
READ MORE: Boy Erased – Film Review
Jenkins is very interested in the human face. He likes to slow the film down and linger, in that dream-like way (with sound minimised) that invokes nostalgia and memory – it’s beautiful, actually. Again, though, the pitfalls are obvious. In 2012’s Les Misérables, Tom Hooper demonstrated a love of the human face, by ignoring painstakingly recreated Paris, and beautiful sets, by ramming the camera down the actors’ throats at every opportunity. Jenkins is more interested in the detail than the distance. When we see flashbacks and memories it plays as memories do. We don’t see in our mind’s eye a beautifully composed filmic shot; rather we remember what we were looking at, so we see hands, eyes – the sensual touchstones of falling in love.
Supporting characters are used sparingly, but effectively. Whilst Regina King’s performance as Tish’s mother Sharon has been somewhat overpraised, the two families respond to circumstances in way that require sensitivity in their handling. Fonny’s [deeply religious] mother displays disgust at the ‘sin’; her husband is more sanguine, but eventually driven to strike her in disgust; Sharon is sympathetic – having hidden the pregnancy until the right time to reveal, with her father Joseph (Colman Domingo) every inch the loving father. In that mix we have evangelism, domestic abuse, and a loving, committed couple. That the two men then go on to petty criminality to fund Fonny’s legal needs, opens up so many areas of behaviour that could lead to stereotypes or, worse, over-earnest attempts at redemption. Beale Street is none of these things.
If Beale Street Could Talk is not Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece: he hasn’t made that yet. It is a terrific piece of work, however, from a man that has a greater eye for detail and character moments (if not yet character arcs) than most in his position; but, one day, he will marry that to a narrative style that is less distancing to the big picture, even if his current work is very inviting to the more intimate moments. This should have been good enough to be amongst the crop of nominations for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, certainly the list we have – and the types of films that tend to receive such praise – anyhow. If our guess on this man’s career trajectory is correct, he will be one of the stories of the 2020s.