A considered and dreamlike perspective on first love and societal injustice, If Beale Street Could Talk is a strong follow up from Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins.
In 1970s New York City, ‘Tish’ (KiKi Layne) and ‘Fonny’ (Stephan James) fall in love and try to build a life together, until a case of mistaken identity and injustice see Fonny imprisoned for rape. We follow their fight for justice while also seeing how they got together, and how those around them inform their relationship as well as the attempts to get Fonny cleared.
Jenkins blew many critics away with Moonlight, a soulful look at one man’s arrested development and sexual awakening in Florida, and his script here (adapting from the novel by James Baldwin) is very similar in its slow but focused presentation, his direction again drawing you into scenes and the world he presents with interesting imagery and perspectives as well as spectacular use of cinematography.
The story is one of a blossoming serious relationship cut short by a ridiculous injustice, and it resonates today as much as I’m sure it did when written, with the sheer unfairness of racial stereotyping and discrimination still sadly widespread and prevalent. Jenkins probably says more with less compared to the novel (I haven’t read it), some conversational scenes meandering strongly to their point and others punctured with sudden explosions of emotion.
It appears very similar to Moonlight in its temporal shuffling, as we are transported at will from the start of the couple’s dreamlike relationship through to the grimness of Fonny’s imprisonment and Tish’s family’s attempts to get him freed – a feat ably assisted by the editing of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, as you never misunderstand when or where.
It’s also similar to Moonlight in that it paints a complex, deep and considered approach to black masculinity (and the growing assertiveness of women) at a time when it was particularly under threat from white panic and intolerance. Words bite and arguments are memorable, while smaller emotive scenes use perspectives and music to say what they need to rather than the couple spelling it out for us viewers.
Jenkins’ intelligent use of viewpoint perspectives paints powerful connections between Fonny and Tish, as well as the other characters, who as a result feel more real and their actions impactful. This is ably assisted by the stunning cinematography of James Laxton, who gives not only a strong visual sense of the era but makes a city widely thought at the time to be a no-go area look incredible, working alongside Jenkins’ use of ranged perspectives and angles to give a strong sense of place.
Peachy yellows, vibrant oranges and reds and the general lightness of what might otherwise have been grim cityscapes make the film feel alive, only aided by the way that characters’ faces and clothes are lit. This is a large part of why the film makes an impression, these sharp and keen colours emboldening the central relationship and fading away as their picturebook romance is shattered by Fonny’s arrest.
The performances and look are well matched by a jazzy, sultry soundtrack from Nicholas Britell, whose upbeat and considered score is undercut at times with slightly haunting tones foreshadowing (or backgrounding) the more desperate story elements. The two leads’ evocative appearances in turn anchor the strong representation of their love story.
KiKi Layne gives a breakout, excellent performance as Tish, her expressive face and soft voice belying her inner resolve and strength as things turn against them. Stephan James in turn provides a compassionate and emotional performance, his soft features evoking that sense of a man given over completely to his relationship, but also that sliding scale of feeling like he needs to be in charge or be the strong one, even when he realises he is not and she is.
The supporting cast is also strong, notably Regina King as Tish’s mum, her strong appearance at turns supportive and raw as one of two parents desperately trying to sort her daughter’s life out, and showing more sympathy for her son-in-law than his family has. She forms a supportive network with Colman Domingo as Tish’s dad, who understatedly plays the understanding, caring and not domineering father doing whatever he can (illegal or not) to help his child (the lack of repercussions is interesting in itself, and a reminder of the lesser focus on smaller crime in the 1970s).
Additional standouts include Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister, who is essentially the strong yet sympathetic comic relief in a film very often overly focused on love or fear. Brian Tyree Henry also makes an impact in a couple of scenes as Fonny’s friend Daniel, the increasingly popular actor putting across the horror, confusion and desperation of young black men and their treatment at the hands of white authority. His remarkable scenes resonate long after.
If there’s anything that I could criticise (and this is nitpicking), it was the quite bizarre and distracting string of cameos from famous performers threaded throughout. These include Diego Luna (as a friend of Fonny’s), Dave Franco (as an empathetic Jewish landlord), Ed Skrein (as the racist policeman responsible for Fonny’s imprisonment), Finn Wittrock (as the virtuous white lawyer representing the family), and Pedro Pascal (as a random gangster (?) in Puerto Rico who helps find the victim of Fonny’s supposed crime).
To a tee, nearly all of these characters are ciphers and have no real depth – most notably they appear to be (at least to me) insignificant pivot points amid the couple’s relationship and travails, with a slight feel of stereotype. I thought their casting was probably a mistake, as it draws your attention to their underdeveloped nature – unknowns would likely have melted away and not made this noticeable.
That’s a small issue though in a film that won’t be for everyone (an action packed blockbuster it is not), but deserves to be seen for two sparkling lead performances and some assured and distinguished visual filmmaking.