Written by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco
Romantic love stories typically come with their own inherent obstacles, such as dealing with individuals with complex emotions getting in the way of happiness. The last thing needed are larger systemic issues making it even more difficult, but as If Beale Street Could Talk states on several occasions, that’s what it’s like being Black in America. Standing tall as one of the most beautiful films ever made, this feature wraps you into its warmth of love while still handling its harsh material with plenty of care.
Friends since childhood, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) have decided to move their relationship into the arena of romance. As they advance in their relationship, they must deal with the obstacle of him being wrongfully accused of a heinous crime and the system not allowing them to break free from the curse placed upon them.
Following his unprecedented success with Moonlight, Barry Jenkins most likely had the good grace to take on anything he set his mind to, and as impossible as it may seem to say, with this feature, he may have just outdone himself. With If Beale Street Could Talk, he takes on the challenge of adapting the work of a genius like James Baldwin but manages to bring it to life in a seemingly unreal manner. Watching this feature brings the feeling of being enraptured in a love story so potent and beautiful, it does not feel real. Not in a sense of it being unrealistic but more so how it expresses a magic and bond that tries to even take on systemic racism. A heavyweight fight and one that leaves its mark on both sides.
The relationship of Fonny and Tish means everything for this story and remains integral to the success of the feature as a whole. As they seemingly get ripped apart by forces outside of their control, the audience needs to ache for them to find the solution to come back together, and the way their relationship gets established and then flourishes demonstrates an incredible amount of beauty. Helped along through the voiceover by Tish, you get the knowledge of these two taking soap baths together when young kids. These two were nearly inseparable where they felt like one flesh already, which meant their relationship advancing to the sexual and romantic felt seamless. It would be one thing just to state these things but the way the feature displays it all sells this feeling of never-ending love shared between the two. An insatiable fire burns between them, which gets challenged by a lack of oxygen at times, but one that refuses to be put out completely.
Success from this relationship working on-screen must be credited to the two lead actors in Kiki Layne and Stephan James, who feel like a dream. The way these two look at each other paired with the cinematography capturing Harlem effervescently makes it feel like a relationship so beautifully tender and loving. James allows the audience to look into his eyes and see the undying affection and care he has for Tish, which gets reciprocated by Layne’s beautifully fragile but sturdy work. Both of them work off each other so stridently, which just left me in awe.
Supporting them is an absolute abundance of talent with each character sharing in the tender love of the central relationship or causing direct harm. Regina King certainly comes out on top as the major standout of the supporting cast but all of the other characters have their definitive moments from the likes of Teyonah Parris, Coleman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, and Aunjanue Ellis. Gosh, you even have the surprise inclusion of tremendous actors like Diego Luna, who helps inject the infectiously loving spirit of Tish’s look back at the beginning of the young relationship. Each of these characters has a scene forever etched into my brain because of their impact and do exactly what a supporting cast should do.
Right from the opening scene, Nicholas Britell’s score makes itself known in the story and the beautifully medlies put together for this film feel too good to be true. From the tracks “Agape” and “Eros,” it perfectly matches the emotional ride Barry Jenkins wants to put the audience through. I could say it was a crime Britell did not win Best Original Score at the Academy Awards, but why state the obvious when we all know this to be true? This score does not force itself upon the narrative, as it just sneaks its way to accentuate every scene in such a beautifully effective manner.
As with many of James Baldwin’s incredible literary feats, this story has more to say than just romance at the center of it all, and the way this film addresses its more harsh elements displays a distinct level of poise. The narrative ensures to have this loving relationship to keep the audience attached in a meaningful way but when it deals with systemic racism continually trying to cause a chasm in the couple and specifically regarding what a specific character gets accused of, it navigates the connection so well. This weaving of ideas comes together effortlessly, which stands as a testament to the work of Baldwin, but also another point of condemnation for Jenkins for allowing the timeless aspect of this story remain and making it clear for a modern audience to take in.
If Beale Street Could Talk will cause a bevy of emotions to those who get to experience it. From the warmth of the almost indescribable love and affection existent between Fonny and Tish to the seething anger from the systemic issues trying to keep them apart. Issues covered in this film show how little has changed for Black folks in this nation and the reality of this story, which at times feels like a fairytale in its beauty, shows not all individuals in this country are afforded a happily ever after. Incredibly harsh, but the way this feature manages this particular harshness and nearly ethereal tenderness demonstrates what makes Barry Jenkins a masterful filmmaker as he continues to prove we do not deserve his storytelling prowess. Stunning in every single visual and emotional aspect, this feature is truly a masterwork.