What immediately struck me in Barry Jenkins’ latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an atmospheric sense of warmth that never lets up. From the opening frames, we see a young couple, Tish and Fonny, holding hands as they walk through a park. Deep green grass and bright autumnal leaves crowd all around them, and Tish and Fonny wear matching blue and yellow outfits as they stroll quietly along. Later on, we see them on a cold street, but their vibrant outfits pop in the dreary weather, blurred multicolored lights radiating behind them. Or we see them in a jail with sunshine yellow walls, or an urban apartment with cozy tungsten lights. Across the entire film, through costumes, production design, and cinematography, this visual motif of ambient warmth provides a comfort to what we’re seeing, even if the events of the movie feel cold or oppressive or painful.
This warmth and comfort reflects the intimacy between Tish and Fonny, a young black couple living in New York City in the 1970’s. The story — adapted from the 1974 novel of the same name written by James Baldwin — follows the challenges these two face when Fonny is arrested after being falsely accused of sexually assaulting a young woman. However, while Fonny is stuck in jail awaiting his trial, Tish reveals that she’s pregnant, and the two of them struggle to support each other through their mutually trying experiences. The narrative plays out in a non-linear structure that goes back and forth between Tish’s pregnancy, Fonny’s legal case, and the early stages of Tish and Fonny’s relationship. Their dynamic is brought to life wonderfully by KiKi Layne (who delivers a subtle but evocative performance, her minute facial expressions saying so much) and Stephan James (who brings equal amounts charisma and vulnerability). The way that these two just look at each other conveys so much. Fear, passion, devotion, love. Far and away, the heights of this film are whenever these two share the screen.
The other performances are mostly strong throughout. Brian Tyree Henry shows up briefly as an old friend of Fonny’s, and as always he’s totally captivating. Regina King and Colman Domingo play Tish’ mother and father. King brings in the dignity but also the suffering and sacrifice of a loving mother, while Domingo is fun and comedic, but always caring. Fonny’s family, however, is less impressive. Michael Beach as Fonny’s father is effectively funny, but his mother and sisters (played by Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, and Dominique Thorne respectively) come across as needlessly and excessively cruel to the point where they don’t even feel like characters so much as devices meant to convince the audience to sympathize with Fonny and Tish. But when the sympathy is derived from characters that feel false, then the sympathy feels false. This issue isn’t major, it only really occurs in one scene early on, and once the story moves away from his family then things pick up again, but it does stand out as an obvious low point in the overall narrative and performances.
The political aspects of the film are overt, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This movie has no qualms with openly and desperately showcasing the frustrating injustices of prejudice and a warped legal system as directly as it possibly can. I understand why this lack of subtlety could bother some people, especially with elements as blunt as black-and-white slideshows of police brutality, but none of it feels hamfisted or insincere to me. It just feels honest, and angry, and genuinely sad in a way that’s open and motivated by the story.
The weakest element overall is the classic dialogue. It seems stylized after the more theatrical writing from early romances of the 50’s, the kind of dialogue that always sounds incredibly acted and written rather than naturally spoken by a human being. In older movies it’s easy to forgive as a product of its time, but employing it in a modern light feels stiff and unnatural. It’s difficult to tell whether or not this stems from Jenkins’ writing, or from the prose of the novel not really translating to current audiences, but either way the dialogue often times feels stagy in a distracting way. However, this is salvaged by strong performances that work well with the writing, and a cinematic style that displays Jenkins’ utmost respect for his characters. He’s not afraid to linger on them, even if they’re not a major focus in the story, and the way they’re shot whenever they’re screaming or having sex or breaking down is intimate without being voyeuristic or exploitative. We feel like we’re there with them, and this helps us feel what they feel; their claustrophobia and anger and loneliness, or their love and joy and passion. These characters and the respect the movie gives them elevate this film into a delicate piece about sociopolitical injustice, familial sacrifice, and love as a means of redemption and salvation.