Adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is the follow up to Barry Jenkins’ award-winning picture Moonlight. Just two short years ago Jenkins announced himself as a director to watch, and Beale has solidified his status as one of cinema’s most talented directors. Set in early 70’s New York City, this is a love story that has the tough task of surviving in an unforgiving world. It stars KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock and Michael Beach, and it is as beautiful as it is devastating.

Layne plays Tish and she’s in love with Fonny (James). They are expecting their first child, but simultaneously Fonny is in jail awaiting trial. Fonny is charged with rape, but he didn’t do it. He was nowhere near the crime, yet he was arrested by a racist cop (Skrein) whom Fonny and Tish had run-in with previously. With the victim fleeing the country and an eyewitness in lockup, too, Fonny’s chances at beating the case are slim. Tish, with a baby growing in her belly, gets help from their families in helping her through in finding legal help for Fonny. Along the way, Jenkins uses astonishing cinematography and striking use of color to announce his quiet story.

Beale uses a combination of positives which have allowed Jenkins’ latest to make many awards shortlists. The most obvious aspect is Jenkins’ eye – the cinematography (James Laxton, Moonlight) and use of color are incredible. There are scenes where Tish and Fonny both wear blue and yellow. They grew up together and were longtime friends before they became lovers. Their matching colors are a nod to the togetherness they share. And Tish’s family, played by King (who just won a Golden Globe), Domingo and Parris, at times all wear green, considered the color of life, something they provide to both their daughter and Fonny. The colors are deliberate and they all come with meaning – they’re not just there to provide beauty (although it definitely is).

Another aspect that allows Beale to be a winner is the performances. Layne and James are relative newcomers, yet they embody Tish and Fonny. They prove there’s such a thing as true love, but they also show us the angst and pain they suffer every day, both big and small. And King, an acting veteran who has been looked over for ages (I mean, c’mon, she was incredible in Jerry Maguire – it wasn’t all Cuba Gooding Jr.), shines brightly with a performance that can be seen as loving and forceful. And in what should prove to be a big 2018 for him, Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) provides a lasting impression with limited screen time. Jenkins, who’s no stranger to coaxing amazing performances from his cast (yup, I’m talking about Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight), does the same with this cast, right on down to bit performances from some unexpected actors.

I’ll be honest – Beale is deliberately paced, even slow. With a running time of 119 minutes, things can drag, but it’s mainly because Beale doesn’t subscribe to typical film tropes. There’s no revelatory moment, a trite story twist, or even a predicable ending. Jenkins, whether he intended to or not, avoids the obvious and lets Tish and Fonny’s love tell the story. Jenkins uses flashbacks and narration and then, after their love reaches seemingly serene and heavenly heights, posits that into a cruel world that comes down on the couple like a ton of bricks. Jenkins just allows things to happen and it’s up to the viewers to see beyond what’s on screen. It’s both rewarding and frustrating since many of us are used to instant gratification.

Although I don’t believe Jenkins has topped Moonlight (he came close, though!), If Beale Street Could Talk is an amazing work. It’s a commentary on love and life without being preachy or showy. It’s also a coming of age story since Tish, over the course of the film, comes to learn some important life lessons. Most importantly, it’s a fantastic and devastating representation of what it’s like to be black in America.

4 stars out of 5

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