If Beale Street Could Talk (2019) – Review

The streets have never felt so warm. 

Moonlight, a luminous, powerful look at the infliction of intersectionality on a black, homosexual man, won Best Picture in 2016. Its legacy is somewhat tainted by the ultimate La La gaffe on the night, but Barry Jenkins, unperturbed, has returned with a sumptuous, utterly breathtaking examination of love, loss and circumstance; similarly incisive, but more inviting to the soul.

Based on James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, the film takes Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), a couple together in spirit since childhood, and makes you fall in love with them as much as they are with each other. The two of them are gorgeous, obviously, but their affection and chemistry is totally authentic. The sharing of glances, the touches of the tips of each others fingers; comfortable doing everything, but nothing all the same. But then, Fonny is jailed for a heinous crime he didn’t commit, just as Tish falls pregnant. His brief worry upgrades to elation as she assures him: “I’m glad, don’t you worry.”

While it’s all fine and well for them, as a 19 and 22-year-old, others aren’t quite as celebratory. Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) take a compassionate stance, offering their care and support. Fonny’s, known for being judgemental, do not react well to the news, sparking a vocal war between parties in the film’s most electric scene. “Has the holy ghost softened your brain?” King poses in bemusement. Hilarious yes, but there’s serious observations on the multitude of black cultures and the candid nature of still-prevalent attitudes.

Similarly to the source material, Jenkins (on both writing and directing duties once again) casts a wide-spanning vision of 70s Harlem that is as inclusive and refreshingly veracious as it is beautiful. Warmth radiates from the alluring summertime palette in which the engrossing plight resides, never played up for unnecessary dramatic weight. Even Ed Skrein’s Officer Bell, who could have easily fell into the more aggressively portrayed figures you can see in Green Book or BlacKkKlansman, is calculated with malice, burning his loathing through the purse of his lips and narrowing of his eyes.

The delicacy of the ensembles emotions are handled with the utmost grace, dynamics everywhere flourishing with ease before your eyes, no matter their size. Even a small chat between Fonny and his friend (played by Brian Tyree Henry) is undeniably progressive for the staunchness of masculine decorum. The acting across the board expresses the work’s sentiment, but King’s expertly-cut character embodies the fervour of maternal loyalty, firmly and empathetically by her daughter’s side, going to great lengths (and distances) to fight the good fight with engaging tenacity.

Jenkins’ mastery of the moving image is represented both in his immense aptitude and his supporting crew behind the camera. Back as cinematographer, James Paxton illuminates his canvas with mellow colour tantamount to the low-lying optimism of the piece, piecing together close-ups that bring time to a standstill and entrancing slo-mo shots that may as well be daydreams. Nicholas Britell, also from Moonlight, punctuates conflicts and the central amour with a stunningly attentive, stripped-down jazz composition that makes up for lack of range in emotional welly, somehow enthralling and relaxing concurrently.

The screenplay only occasionally dips too deep into hyper-descriptive monologuing, but even then the words are lyrical, more poetry than prose. But the film’s greatest success, and tragedy, is the portrayal of love’s frequent inability to topple the results of hatred and abuse. By blending dignified polemic into a heart-wrenching, simple story of two people put upon by prejudice, Jenkins has created extremely watchable, exquisitely realised high-class cinema. In The World’s End, aliens invade earth to improve the life of humans, who seemed to be on an inevitable course to self-destruction. The fact that Bohemian Rhapsody is up for Best Picture and this sublime film is not, perhaps suggests we should expect a visit anytime soon.

A sensory, tender, romantic work of incredible poignancy. 

Rating: ★★★★★

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

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Author: Cameron Frew

Freelance film writer. Words on Flickering Myth, Bloody Disgusting, Movie Corner UK and Jumpcut Online. My five favourite films are: 1. The Goonies 2. Forrest Gump 3. The Shawshank Redemption 4. Warrior 5. Whiplash

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