This film is Barry Jenkins’ followup to Moonlight, that beautiful film that told the story of a young black American’s life. For this film, Jenkins has adapted a book by James Baldwin and was showered with award nominations for Best Screenplay. The film was a bit hit with critics, gaining an average rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Set in early-1970s Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk is a timeless and moving love story of both a couple’s unbreakable bond and the African-American family’s empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (screen newcomer KiKi Layne). A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (Stephan James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Through the unique intimacy and power of cinema, If Beale Street Could Talk honors the author’s prescient words and imagery, charting the emotional currents navigated in an unforgiving and racially biased world as the filmmaker poetically crosses time frames to show how love and humanity endure.
When Fonny is thrown in prison, Tish and her family undergo a traumatic battle to set him free and reunite the two before she has his baby. Lamentably, Beale Street is as relevant now as it was when Baldwin wrote the book in the 1970s, an exercise in illuminating and validating the lives of people loving and surviving in an oppressive world. Jenkins’ work here is truly stellar, the film radiates warmth and humanity in every dense, intricate frame. Employing an episodic structure of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the film incorporates a wonderful cast in small roles, most notably Brian Tyree Henry in a haunting, unsettling scene as an ex-con describing the dehumanizing aspects of imprisonment; and Oscar-winner Regina King as Tish’s tough-as-nails mother.
Jenkins has followed up his masterpiece with a searingly powerful, emotional film, driven by Nicholas Britell’s phenomenal score, but one that remains unflinchingly unsentimental about the situation its characters find themselves in. Love persists, but the narrative of the constant struggle for freedom for black people in America has no interest in tidy, easy resolutions. This means that the film lacks the astonishing catharsis of Moonlight, but retains its frankness and formal beauty. Beale Street is an almost unbearably human examination of the price of love and the tragedy of stolen freedom.
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