Barry Jenkins’ latest film “If Beale Street Could Talk” warmly starts with its two main characters spending time together outside. Even before one of them talks to us about how much they are in love with each other, their mutual affection and attraction are already palpable to us as they silently but tenderly regard each other, and this precious moment between them poignantly haunts us as we observe their intimate relationship – and how it happens to be tested by an unjust predicament inflicted upon them.
Set in New Yok City in the 1970s, the movie tells the story of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), two young African American people who were just close childhood friends in the past but now become two young adults deeply fallen in love with each other. While their future is not exactly bright, they have been happy and optimistic as becoming more serious about their relationship, and they luckily get a nice place where they are going to live together after getting married, but then, unfortunately, Fonny is arrested and then incarcerated in prison for a rape incident of which he is wrongfully accused considering the rather unreliable testimonies from the victim and a police officer who caught him at that time.
Whenever Tish visits Fonny at the prison, they frequently confirm their deep love to each other, but things become more desperate and frustrating day by day. As Fonny keeps getting stuck in prison with no progress for his upcoming trial, he cannot help but exasperated and depressed at times, and Tish becomes saddened as there is nothing she can do for him except providing him constant support via her routine prison visit.
And there is a serious matter they must deal with sooner or later. Tish recently finds that she has been pregnant for around 3 months, and Fonny is certainly happy when he receives this unexpected news from her, but both of them soon come to worry more as being aware of more uncertainty in their situation. Will he be released before his child is born? Or, will she be able to raise their child well while he remains stuck in his prison as before?
Anyway, Tish eventually decides to tell her family about her pregnancy, and they all stand by her in contrast to Fonny’s mother and two sisters, who have looked down on Tish and her family and does not hide their condescending attitude at all when Tish and her family requests a private meeting for discussing Tish’s pregnancy. When Fonny’s mother and two sisters go a bit too far in their harsh judgment on Tish’s pregnancy, we get one of a few tense dramatic moments in the film, and we are sort of relieved as these self-righteous ladies leave with indignation and humiliation in the end.
When Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) later consult with Fonny’s attorney, they are told that proving Fonny’s innocence requires a considerable amount of time, money, and effort, but they decide to do whatever is necessary for Fonny. While Tish’s father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) collect money as much as they can, Sharon subsequently prepares for going to Puerto Rico for meeting the victim of the rape incident, who ran away to somewhere in Puerto Rico not long after giving her testimony against Fonny.
As frequently anxious and worried, Tish’s mind often goes back to her happier time with Fonny, and the movie gives us a number of memorable flashback scenes full of care and sensitivity. We watch them having a nice romantic dinner at a local restaurant thanks to Fonny’s friend who works there, we observe the first carnal experience between them in Fonny’s shabby basement residence, and we also see their fortunate encounter with a young Jewish landlord who shows them more kindness and compassion than expected.
However, Tish and Fonny are also frequently reminded of the harsh and difficult reality surrounding them and others around them. When Fonny’s old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) comes to spend some time with them, the mood becomes quite sad and gloomy as Daniel talks about his prison experience, and that moment resonates with an earlier scene where Fonny expresses his desperation and frustration with his continuing incarceration. When Tish happens to be harassed by some Caucasian guy while shopping at a local store, Fonny almost gets himself arrested for violently reacting to that guy, and we are reminded of how the American society has not been changed much for its colored citizens for many decades.
While steadily maintaining the sensitive and thoughtful storytelling approach of his film, Jenkins, who also adapted James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, did a commendable job of capturing the essence and spirit of Baldwin’s novel along with his dependable crew members. While cinematographer James Laxton, who previously collaborated with Jenkins in “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008) and “Moonlight” (2016), brings lots of warmth and sensibility to many intimate scenes between Tish and Fonny, the somber but gentle score by composer Nicholas Britell, which was deservedly Oscar-nominated in last week, adds extra poetic beauty to the film, and the overall result on the screen is quite lovely to say the least.
KiKi Layne and Stephan James hold the center via their unadorned chemistry on the screen, and they are also surrounded by a bunch of good performers to watch. While Regina King, who expectedly received the nomination for Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is simply terrific, the other supporting performers including Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Ed Skrein, Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Beach, Finn Wittrock, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Emily Rios, Dave Franco, and Brian Tyree Henry have each own moment to shine, and the special mention must go to Henry, who became more prominent to us in last year thanks to his notable supporting performances in “Widows” (2018), “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018), and this film.
After drawing our attention through his debut feature film “Medicine for Melancholy”, Jenkins went further with his next film “Moonlight”, which won three Oscars including the one for Best Picture, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” surely confirms us again that he is indeed one of the most important filmmakers in our time. Thanks to his masterful handling of mood, story, and characters, we come to care and emphasize a lot with two main characters in the film, and the quite emotional power generated from their bittersweet romance drama lingers on us for a while along with the tentative optimism glimpsed from the last shot of the film. In short, this is one of the most powerful movies of 2018, and I sincerely urge you to check it out as soon as possible.