A feature like Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is going to be held to an impossible standard, especially in comparison to the filmmaker’s prior work, Moonlight, which steamrolled its way to a surprise Best Picture win after a wave of critical adulation pushed it there. To say that Jenkins has made another masterpiece feels reductive, given the emotional breadth between its reels and the impressively difficult nature of a Baldwin adaptation, but the term “masterpiece” feels right enough as it is. It’s the rare work that manages to take all of the facets that defined a filmmaker’s prior work and enhances and refines them, but it also somehow manages to satisfy complaints unfairly hurled at Moonlight in the wake of its release.
It’s the early ’70s, and Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) have fallen deep in love with one another. They’ve always known each other, having grown up in close proximity to one another, but they now understand the depth and power of their feelings for each other. They’re planning on eventually moving in together, and have dreams of what their lives will look like when they’re truly free and together. It’s then that Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and is sent to jail, where he suffers unknown horrors at the hands of guards and fellow inmates. However, this is not his story: Tish is our main character here, and she discovers that she is pregnant while Fonny is in prison. She tells her mother (Regina King) and the two attempt to clear Fonny’s name with what means that they have. It’s a tribute to the unwavering strength of black women despite the opposition of a white supremacist state, but it never manages to slide into didacticism.
The same dream-like romantic haze that made Moonlight such a rapturous experience for so many is well-preserved in Beale Street, and that’s not only because the film is lensed once again by cinematographer James Laxton, who has an understanding of color theory quite unlike anyone outside of Emmanuel Lubezki, but because Jenkins’ understanding of his characters’ emotions has only grown in the intervening years since his best picture win. The filmmaker is truly one of the modern cinema’s greatest crafters of on-screen intimacy alongside masters like Wong-Kar Wai, as his entrancing take on interpersonal communication — long close-ups, framed as if it were portraiture, with the shot’s subject staring at the camera, cracking the fourth wall ever so slightly — draws us into the moment’s moods and connects us with Tish and Fonny in a painfully romantic way. Layne and James, as well, bring their all to the film, and give fearless and raw performances, alongside supporting turns from King (who will rightfully take home another statue for her work here) and Atlanta’s Bryan Tyree Henry, who takes a bit part and transforms it into something frightfully upsetting and emotional in what brief screen time that he has.
It’s not enough to say that Jenkins has crafted one of the greatest films of 2018, one that I can’t wait to watch again and experience in all of its tumult, of its joys and sadnesses, but words inevitably fail us all when dealing with the work of a modern master. If Beale Street Could Talk is a portrait of love in danger of being snuffed out by a racist system that just can’t let its lovers be, and it’s both a distillation of what a filmmaker like Jenkins brought to his prior films and an expansion of his talents in a number of directions.
It’s a sweeping work of history, a powerful tribute to the author upon whose work it is based on, and the kind of Old Hollywood-stylized romance that so many directors can only wish that their work resembles. We’ll have more for you on If Beale Street Could Talk closer its to its release this November, but know this: This is required viewing for everyone with even a passing interest in cinema.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.