Could writer-director Barry Jenkins have ever topped Moonlight, his Oscar-winning triumph, with his third film? If Beale Street Could Talk, which adapts James Baldwin’s cult 1974 novel, comes close. Choosing to focus again on some of the core themes running through his earlier work: racial injustice, protagonists on the verge between youth and adulthood, and the fraught relationship between black masculinity and vulnerability, Jenkins proves that he’s in it for the long haul: and that he could be one of our modern masters.
Fonny and Tish are two young New Yorkers in love in early 1970s Harlem. Their lives are shattered when Fonny is hauled away to prison on a false charge of rape, while Tish discovers she’s pregnant. We see their families pull together to help free Fonny, while Tish is forced to make a home for their child on her own.
It’s a bittersweet story, spending equal time between the time before Fonny’s arrest and after. Regina King rightly won critical praise for her role as Tish’s crusading mother, the nucleus around which her family revolves, but Stephan James and KiKi Layne are just as worthy of attention. Relative newcomers, you simply fall in love with them whenever they’re on screen, aided by the ravishing cinematography of James Laxton.
Beale Street is a film which is all the more powerful when its rage rises to the surface. It’s in King’s howls of sorrow when she loses an opportunity to help Fonny, and in Brian Tyree Henry’s cameo as one of Fonny’s friends who knows the horrors which await him in prison. Most powerfully, it’s in the sections of Baldwin’s text which the film borrows verbatim, delivered by Layne in voiceover. It’s an anger that’s infectious. Above all, Jenkins handles the film’s non-linear structure masterfully, and ensures that each turn of the story lands with a hammer blow.