Writer/director Barry Jenkins announced himself as a major filmmaker with his second film, 2016’s Moonlight, which won three Oscars, including Best Picture. His follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, is already notable as it marks the first American fiction film adaptation of any of author James Baldwin’s works.
The film centers on Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne), a young couple who live in Harlem in the 1970s. It is at once timeless and timely, as it follows both their ever-evolving romance, one which grew out a friendship as kids, and the journey of a now-pregnant Tish trying to get Fonny out of prison after he is falsely accused of rape.
For support, Tish leans on her family, including her mother, Sharon (Regina King), father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), and sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). The film alternates between pre- and post-imprisonment scenes, demonstrating the depths of the love between Fonny and Tish, as well as the profound injustice of his arrest.
While the film certainly does not shy away from social commentary, especially when Jenkins inserts pointed real-life examples of racism at work, it is highly effective when it comes to the romance side of things. Jenkins gives Fonny and Tish’s relationship plenty of time to breathe outside of the context of Fonny being in prison, and their bond is rightfully swoon-worthy.
Providing Tish with a fiercely supportive and protective family gives the post-imprisonment portion of the film its oomph. Whether it’s confronting Fonny’s family, trying to track down Fonny’s accuser, or doing whatever it takes to make money to pay for a lawyer, the family is always there for Tish and Fonny, giving the story additional emotional heft.
One puzzling aspect of the film is the casting of relatively well-known actors in the film’s few white roles. When Finn Wittrock pops up as a lawyer helping the family or Dave Franco as a Jewish landlord, each actor’s individual presence removes the focus from the story at hand. Casting character actors might have served those particular roles better.
On the flip side is a mesmerizing appearance by Brian Tyree Henry. Coming midway through the film, his role is as memorable as they come. Playing Daniel, an old friend of Fonny who has recently gotten out of prison, Henry goes from joyous to heartbreaking in 12 short minutes, encapsulating the film perfectly.
The film starts to drag in its final 20 minutes, suggesting that Jenkins should have cut down the film a bit more. But the strength of the performances by James, Layne, King, and more keep it from bottoming out, as does the underlying dramatic tension of whether or not Fonny will ever get out of jail.
While perhaps a slight step down from the sublime Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk does nothing to diminish the burgeoning career of Jenkins. He and other African-American filmmakers continue to shine a light on under-represented people and stories, and the world is better for it.