If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkin’s follow-up to Moonlight, an absolutely stunning tale of a young black man discovering his sexuality during the 1980s – with Moonlight standing as my personal favorite film of this decade, Beale Street carries high expectations.
Based on a James Baldwin novel and following a young black couple in the early 1970s as the man is wrongly sent to prison, If Beale Street Could Talk carries a suitably heavy theme. Tish reveals she is pregnant with Fonny’s child as they sit separated by the glass in a visiting room; most of their love we get through flashbacks, the kind that blurs into the foreground with no clear visual delineation. Like Moonlight, Beale Street carries this sense of timelessness, that the events of the past weigh so heavily upon its subjects that the entire force of their impact pushes them through their present trauma. This is the story of a love worth going to the edge of the earth to save.
As such, Beale Street is not a work of pure tragedy; Barry Jenkins captures the beauty of little moments. The innocent nervousness of the couple’s first sexual encounter, the absolute glee as Fonny runs into an old friend, Tish holding her child for the first time; despite everything, there are moments of happiness that shine through.
The dialogue carries an expert wit; an early scene finds Tish announcing her pregnancy to Fonny’s family, and it is equally hilarious and devastating. The fathers are delighted in the prospect while Fonny’s mother claims religious devastation. The women spar with each other, their words increasingly barbed as the conversation carries on.
Other moments work solidly as passages. Tish narrates a scene as she works behind the perfume counter in a department store, observing the way in which different sets of people approach her. There’s this floating structure to the film’s presentation, taking steps back to let characters tell their own stories.
The very humanistic nature of Beale Street is matched by its phenomenal impressionistic cinematography. So much of the film consists of close-up shots, the background becoming increasingly blurred as emotions rise until the actors are the only element in focus. A particularly devastating shot finds Fonny stepping back, the entire image going out of focus as he loses sense of his own being. Beale Street captures that sense that, at our highest and lowest moments, it’s as if the world itself fades, only the self remaining.
Beale Street expertly showcases how a singular focus can impress just as much as a wide lens or an extended take. The lighting, the set design, it all coalesces around the central figure in each shot. Of course, none of this would work if the acting wasn’t high quality; so many shots leave the actors standing alone, backed by nothing but a blur of colors.
Barry Jenkins has created one of those works that feels like the Great American Film, a piece that so perfectly captures American culture in a certain time and place while seeming to carry a certain agelessness, a message as relevant in this era as it would be in any other. But it’s the unfortunate fact of these works that they carry a certain symbolic element, the feeling that they are trying to say everything at once. As human as these characters feel, as real as their situations are, there’s this constant lingering feeling that they represent something larger than themselves. Which, while I feel this is true of many fictional works, Beale Street has this way of drawing attention to its own artifice with occasional grand statements about the American experience. This is especially jarring with how each individual scene is shot with such singular focus; it’s a quiet film with loud aspirations, at its best when its characters are alone in their own time and space.
All in all, If Beale Street Could Talk is a worthy successor to Moonlight. It might lack the tight, cyclical focus that made Moonlight an outright masterpiece, but Barry Jenkins still carries a stunning eye for each individual moment. Moonlight was no fluke; Beale Street solidifies Jenkins as one of cinema’s young greats.
4.5 Stars out of 5