When Moonlight came out in 2016, Barry Jenkins movie astounded many different people and shot Marhershala Ali into the zeitgeist with his Oscar-winning performance. However while many enjoyed Moonlight for its trend setting story and cultural importance, not to mention some fantastic acting, I wasn’t as taken by it as the rest of society on the whole. It’s structure meant it felt flat at times, skipping through its story in a way that made it lack cohesion. I’m pleased to announce that despite Beale Street having a similarly jumpy approach to storytelling, it is the far superior film and it transports you straight into its world of love, struggle and family leaving you devastated and enamoured at the same time.
The film follows the relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), two young adults just starting out in the early 70s. When Fonny is sent to prison for a crime he did not commit and Tish discovers she is pregnant they both suffer because of this new dynamic, fighting to change their circumstances despite the world they live in forcing them apart. With the help of their families, they try to prove Fonny’s innocence and provide for this new baby in trying times
Structured around a loving relationship, If Beale Street Could Talk is part love story, part existential crisis. While Fonny and Tish fall for each other and are then summarily torn from each other Jenkins weighs the film down in the classic free will versus fate argument. It’s an oldie but a goodie as he meshes the idea of racism and the time setting to imply that you can’t fight against a society that just doesn’t respect you or the people around you. While in today’s society things may have drastically changed, you can still see truth in Jenkins’ assessment, not just of a time since gone but of attitudes today that sadly haven’t changed.
However race is just a factor in Fonny and Tish’s story, one that is never dragged down by the problems that it faces but the joys that make it. While full of disappointment, their story is one of hope and longing and Jenkins wants you to feel that in every single frame. The constant close-ups and willingness to set his characters/actors free and loose connects you to this story and to this universal idea that caring for something so deeply, disconnecting yourself from it seems more painful than the act of loving it in the first place. The oftentimes invasive approach to shooting these characters makes every rise and fall, deceleration of love or sweet gesture seem like a matter of life and death, because to Fonny and Tish, it is.
But there is a world outside of these two that Jenkins forces upon them, not only in the way both of their families hinder and embrace their lives but also in how their New York community connects them to a world outside of their bubble of devotion. Jenkins cleverly tells two stories simultaneous of how Fonny and Tish got to where they are and what they do after. Because this isn’t just a love story, it is a tale of community, family and everything that led to this moment. Be it fate or your own choice, Tish and Fonny were crafted by what came before just like everyone else. Jenkins and Beale Street in general are interested in how we got to this place and the mystery of what the future holds because of it and that is as ambitious as it gets.
With an intense, encapsulating soundtrack, this idea of feeling safe and held is propelled by a warm and tender sound. Constantly swelling throughout, it never really lets up, keeping you entranced by the story despite some choice distractions that Jenkins makes to serve the smaller story. In fact in this regard, it may be the only real qualm with Beale Street as the larger story of proving Fonny’s innocence feels meaningless right from the start of the film. An extended scene towards the end of the film feels not only tacked on but small in comparison to the story Jenkins is trying to tell.
However even this doesn’t draw away from Beale Streets collection of compelling moments, given life by a vibrant cast. Layne and James are the touchstones of Beale Street but Regina King as Tish’s mother deserves recognition for her depiction of a fierce but broken women trying her best against a world that doesn’t care. In fact Beale Street finds strength in what we can see and touch, the things that are close to us and we can connect to. We all lean on the things around us but Jenkins has translated it into something tangible and touching and despite some small story issues, this is an important film that never presses you to think about it, just to relate to it.