Review: Young black love battles oppression in Barry Jenkins’s ethereal “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Barry Jenkins’s latest piece of cinematic fantasia begins in sensual fashion, but considering the sensibilities at play, that’s to be expected. We sweep and glide and spy on two young, black lovers strolling through a city park, approaching ever closer without knowing it until the camera is right up alongside them.

“You ready for this?” Alonso asks, to which Tish replies she’s never been more ready for anything.

Perhaps it’s because of modern, continuously evolving ruminations of love and relationships that we’re tempted to overthink what exactly “this” is. Is it marriage, a child or another otherwise drastic change to come that will test the couple? Is he going off to war? Is she leaving town, him unable to follow? Are they somehow aware of what’s to come—that Alonso, or “Fonny” as he’s called, will soon be arrested for an alleged rape he denies he committed?

But we should know by now that Jenkins – whose groundbreaking, Oscar-winning “Moonlight” continues to deeply resonate two years after its release – is charmed by stories that are simple at face value. It’s the layers upon layers of subtext to this relationship and its place in 1970s Harlem that “If Beale Street Could Talk” asks us to ponder, all the while Jenkins wraps us up in his characteristically delicate direction.

Narrated by Tish, “Beale Street” is a dream of a film, but the things its characters endure are nothing to fantasize over. Fonny fights to clear his name from prison while Tish prepares for the impending arrival of their child—news that the former’s family doesn’t take kindly to. All the while, consider their environment: Every one of their public actions and sentiments are channeled through a mirror of misconception that refuses to be shattered to this day.

Interweaving this timeline of enduring love in an oppressive era are glimpses into Fonny and Tish’s life before his arrest, which the film teaches us to assume is wrongful, through we never get a clear answer. We see the pair being intimate, we see them apartment-hunting, we see them strolling down the middle of city streets as if marching toward a utopia.

At the forefront are Kiki Layne and Stephan James, who form an intensely believable bond as two young lovers about to face a tidal wave of tests.

In stark, purposefully jarring contrast to these ethereal stretches – right as Jenkins makes us think we can instead reside in these happier days – are the occasional presentations of black-and-white snapshots depicting the era and its brutality. They are brief sequences, ones that see the auteur channeling documentary-style filmmaking in the vein of the climax to Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansmen” over the summer, and a reminder that nothing has really changed. The best we can hope for is that Tish and Fonny emerge unscathed.

The interludes aside, “Beale Street” effortlessly pivots back and forth, back and forth between Tish and Fonny’s lives before and after his arrest with the trancelike momentum of a pendulum—ceaseless but with an undeniable gravitas. It’s a story of unfairness told with grace; a tale of love, but by no means sugarcoated; infatuatedly melancholic, but also unexpectedly urgent.

Its ensemble, too, is praiseworthy from end to end—notably Regina King, excellent as Tish’s mother doing everything in her power to preserve her daughter’s plans, and the rising star of Brian Tyree Henry, arresting in his short appearance as Fonny’s just-released-from-prison friend.

Some of the more taken-for-granted moments speckled across cinematic history are when a film’s attitude molds itself to the paradigm-shifting performance of a capable actor, instead of the other way around. “Beale Street” accomplishes that when Henry is on screen, for a brief time making a leap from somber to harrowing.

All the while “Beale Street” remains a loving and embracing work. Even as it takes its turns for the realistically harsh, it moves along with the momentum of a river current, so much so that you feel its somewhat abrupt end when the credits begin to roll. Lines of dialogue in one scene become bodiless thoughts in others, complimenting Tish’s narration of the unfolding events, itself never a distract, but as much a part of the environment as Nicholas Britell’s gorgeous entity of a score and James Laxton’s youthfully vigorous and curious camera.

Jenkins, echoing a style he evoked much of in “Moonlight,” also decides to put his characters front-and-center for many of shots. Not just as subjects of his story, mind you, but literally so—us looking at them, them looking at us, most of the time without a word being uttered. While other movies get off on breaking down fourth walls, Jenkins beautifully evokes the cosmic power of the medium through mere gazes that transport us to Beale Street—a black community and society and sense of humanity. If it could truly speak without repercussion, one gets the sense it wouldn’t be with a whisper.

 

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is rated R for language and some sexual content

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo

Directed by Barry Jenkins

2018

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