Once in a blue moon a filmmaker comes along that lights a fire of excitement in fans of the medium, and with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” director Barry Jenkins cements his place as one of the most talented auteurs working in the industry today. His extremely personal adaptation of the classic James Baldwin novel is his follow-up to 2016’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight,” and I would be both pleased and not at all surprised if he takes home more awards at the Oscars this year.
The film tells the story of 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), an African-American woman in ’70s Harlem, who is forced to grow up fast. Tish has a child on the way and fiancé Fonny (Stephan James) in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The pair have been friends since childhood, but their dreams of happiness are derailed by a corrupt system. Luckily Tish has a supportive mom and dad (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent here) who help her deal with the pain and tragedy in her life.
Jenkins is the perfect director to tackle Baldwin’s novel. If there ever was a creative match made in Heaven, this is it. His narrative craft is only outshined by the stunning visuals and equally impressive editing. Every shot and framing choice is nearly flawless. The constant intense close-ups embody the idea of young lovers whose worlds revolve around the other, which in turn creates a deeper emotional bond with the audience. The hope, tragedy, and reality of intense devotion becomes beautifully cinematic.
It’s interesting that Jenkins chooses to set the film in the 1970s (the same as the novel) because the story could easily take place in present day. The elements of racial injustice, police corruption, and false imprisonment are an unfortunate truth that many minorities still face today. It’s a sad commentary on the state of the world, but it’s no less thought-provoking. The period setting serves as a warning flag, a somber reminder of just how far society has failed to evolve when it comes to “the other.”
There’s a heated passion that saturates every frame of this film. The cast is astonishingly good across the board. I predict many ensemble acting award wins, and every one will be well-deserved. Jenkins is an actor’s director with a considerable skill to pull commanding performances from his actors. If you thought the group of performers in “Moonlight” was strong, wait until you see this. One of the standout scenes, and probably one of my favorites from any film this year, is an extended bit where Tish tells Foney’s family about the baby. It’s as uncomfortable as it is enlightening, and it’s unforgettable.
The theme of living your best life despite the hand you’re dealt, especially when the two young lovers represent the shattered hopes and dreams of us all, is one that’s as hopeful as it is depressing. Jenkins tackles the heft of the story with a delicate balance that proves he’s not a one-hit wonder. This is powerful, emotional filmmaking at its finest, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” is one of the very best films of the year.