For Moonlight, his stunning sophomore feature, director Barry Jenkins adapted the unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Even putting aside its eventual Best Picture win, the kind of critical praise that met Moonlight during its festival run and theatrical release is rarely so unanimous or effusive. It was a remarkable work of art speaking to an overlooked perspective. Jenkins’ follow-up, the enchanting If Beale Street Could Talk, takes a minor novel from James Baldwin, a foundational chronicler of the black American experience, and turns it into a sensuous portrait of love and commiseration.
At the film’s center are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), barely out of their teens and already expecting a child. There’s a tense scene early on when Tish has Fonny’s family over to announce her pregnancy. Fonny’s Bible-thumping mother reacts by hurling venomous insults, while his father and Tish’s father react primarily with warm understanding. Something shocking occurs during this riveting sequence, and each character’s response reveals a great truth about their complicated inner lives.
Tish views the incoming child as a blessing, albeit an inopportune one as Fonny has been falsely accused of rape and is currently in prison awaiting trial. As the film cross-cuts between time periods, detailing the beginning of the couple’s relationship to their grim present, the hopelessness of Fonny’s predicament comes into sharper focus even as both his and Tish’s families try, with increasing desperation, to prove his innocence.
Describing this main conflict makes Beale Street sound like a harrowing experience. However, it’s anything but. Brief voiceovers and black-and-white stills give viewers a historical context for racially motivated police brutality in 1970s Harlem, but Jenkins would rather make you swoon than rage. Once again, the filmmaker has crafted a story that positively aches with feeling. Tish and Fonny’s love is depicted with rich vibrancy — Nicholas Britell’s lush string score, shimmering skin tones captured through close-ups, performances that speak volumes by doing very little. It also doesn’t hurt that every cast member here is almost inhumanly beautiful; Layne and James make for particularly effective close-up material.
Jenkins has often been compared to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai, specifically his seminal 2000 effort In the Mood for Love. Like Kar-Wai, the sumptuous atmosphere Jenkins imbues in his films goes beyond flashy aesthetics and gives us an intimate glimpse into a character. Take, for instance, a scene where Fonny and his recently paroled friend Daniel (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry) catch up with each other over cigarettes and beer. This exchange is filmed with such patience and care that every exhalation of smoke and pause between words feels ripe with meaning.
With its straightforward vignette structure, Moonlight offered a gracefully simple narrative. By comparison, Beale Street is decidedly more ambitious. Not only is the story told in nonlinear fashion, its cast of characters is far greater and the plot takes several detours with its supporting characters. The majority of these deviations are splendid, such as one involving Regina King as Tish’s mother heading to Puerto Rico in a last-ditch effort to save Fonny. A couple feel unwieldy, however, especially a jarring Dave Franco cameo that leads nowhere.
Though Beale Street may occasionally lack its predecessor’s focus, there’s no doubt that Jenkins is onto something next-level here. Along with Sean Baker (The Florida Project), he’s among our most empathetic storytellers working today, finding warmth and dignity in tragedy.