Few modern directors can portray love quite like Barry Jenkins. His last film, 2016’s sultry stunner Moonlight was a perfect portrait of love unused, tamped down but eventually, cautiously released. If Beale Street Could Talk is an equally dreamy story of love given freely, passionately and completely. If it’s not quite a story of love conquering all, it’s about love that refuses to surrender.
Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk takes us through the romance of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Friends since childhood, they slide into love when they both reach adulthood. They’re planning to get married. Tish is pregnant. Just as everything seems close to perfect, Fonny is accused of rape, which he couldn’t possibly have committed, and is slammed up in prison. The system has very little interest in establishing whether or not he actually committed the crime when it’s simpler just to lock him up, so it’s up to Tish to try to prove his innocence.
The ugliness at the heart of that story – the injustice that is routine for black people in America, particularly in the 1970s, when this is set – isn’t allowed to bring down Jenkins’ story. With visuals that are lush and romantic, and scenes that gaze adoringly at his central couple in long, gentle takes, his film is eternally hopeful. Forces from all sides try to pop Tish and Fonny’s bubble of happiness – sometimes it’s a racist cop trying to pick a fight he knows he’ll win, or the difficulty of trying to find someone to rent you a flat when you’re not white – but its skin is thick. Even when nothing goes their way, they keep going.
Jenkins portrays all kinds of love with equal truth. In a relatively small role, Regina King is a formidable as Tish’s mother, who travels to Puerto Rico to try to convince Fonny’s accuser to recant her story. There’s misguided love from Fonny’s family, who think they want what’s best for him but really want what is most palatable to them. There’s fraternal love from Fonny’s best friend (Brian Tyree Henry absolutely killing it in his one big scene). In a film that could so easily feel doom mongering, particular in its final scenes that suggest that between the 70s and now not a whole lot has changed, If Beale Street Could Talk refuses to be dented. Through extreme darkness it always keeps proud hope alight. It’s romantic in several sense of the word. It’s a very easy movie to love.