Barry Jenkins’ latest is a challenging film, but not in the sense of it being difficult to watch or indecipherable to parse. Rather, it is a film that showcases contrasts: One that evokes Classic Hollywood in that Love Conquers All but does not shy from the reality of black lives in 1970’s Harlem, of families bound through love yet tested by adversity, people striving to seek light while a corrupt system casts a shadow over them. At times it feels in poor taste to write a review for If Beale Street Could Talk so soon after viewing.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are two young black people in love. It being the USA of the early 1970’s, for them to live their lives in peace and happiness is simply not an option. A baby on the way, Fonny wrongfully incarcerated, the deck is stacked against them yet they fight with all they have to keep their love alive and to seek justice.
Driven by these compelling central performances, Beale Street is buoyed by a complex, resonant score by Nicholas Britell and framing by James Laxton that takes on a dreamlike aesthetic in places, where considered use of slow-motion and POV amplifies the emotional weight. The colour palette is vibrant and evocative, akin to those of Classical Hollywood filmmaking, yet is reflective of how Tish and Fonny view each other. Tish is bathed in soft light, an angel in Fonny’s eyes, while Fonny is compassionate and loving when viewed by Tish.
It is a film of finding beauty within hardship. Sumptuous design and stylistic flair does not detract from the harder edges of the film. Confessional moments, such as that of childhood friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) focus on the everyday fear felt living in a society that is determined to punish them for simply being. Tish and Fonny remain hopeful and optimistic as they have each other. They have family that fight for them, defiant against the prejudices they face, and a great pain of the film is in knowing the tribulations of their relationship are not of their own, but they are burdened with by the world they live in.
The at times ethereal stylisation is also not reserved for the purposes of capturing beauty, it is also utilised for imagery that takes a turn for the uneasy, if not outright nightmarish: How a white police officer leers at the pair with malicious intent, how patrons at Tish’s perfume counter job grasp her hand for an uncomfortably long time, of seeing Fonny’s once-proud form be broken down by prison life. With each moment of love there is also pain and struggle, and this is something that Jenkins deftly balances. An enriching, life-affirming tale of love and devotion set against the backdrop of prejudice, a tale as relevant today as it ever has been.
Therein lies the power of If Beale Street Could Talk. Despite every obstacle thrown their way, Tish, Fonny and their family refuse to buckle, refuse to give in. Love will conquer all, even in a system determined to crush it.
If Beale Street Could Talk is out on general release in the UK