If Beale Street Could Talk is a feat of cinematic magic, from its haunting narrative (adapted from James Baldwin’s novel of the same name) to its timely depiction of cultural experience. Barry Jenkins’ vision is beautiful, characterized by dreamy hues and backed by Nicholas Britell’s expressive musical score. Already nominated for three Golden Globes, Beale Street is finding similar critical acclaim to Jenkins’ 2016 Oscar winning Moonlight, and rightly so. The film deserves nominations in acting, direction, cinematography, and musical score, at the very least.
Under Jenkins’ direction, Kiki Layne and Stephan James, who play lovers Clementine “Tish” and Alfonzo “Fonny,” achieve a rare connection. Their onscreen chemistry is raw, passionate, and so believable. The young black couple, living in 1970s Harlem, grapples with the harrowing realities of their present: Fonny suffers in jail for a crime he did not commit, while Tish carries their unborn child. Placed sporadically throughout this chronological plot line are flashbacks that illustrate the friendship, trust, and love that define their relationship. The unconventional narrative structure culminates in a gentle, dreamy vignette tinged with desperation and anguish.
Jenkins’ aversion to heavy exposition, instead devoting screen time to powerful wordless exchanges, justifies Tish’s brief narrations, which introduce plot elements and tie the film to its source material. Beale Street rarely falters, but these voiceovers disrupt the film’s cadence, as does Dave Franco’s cameo as a Jewish landlord spouting corny wisdom. “I dig people who love each other,” says his character Levy. “Black, white, green, purple, it doesn’t matter to me. Just spread the love.” Supposedly intended as an affecting moment of cross-cultural unity, his saccharine monologue undermines the film’s otherwise poignant cultural exploration.
Prior to this anomalous scene is my favorite moment in the film. Fonny and Tish tour an unfinished apartment complex as homey as an abandoned parking garage. Fonny, in an improvisational attempt to allay Tish’s qualms about renting the space, enlists Franco to help him mime-lift a fridge and carry it into their imaginary apartment. He describes the table he’ll craft for their big family dinners, a motif that devastatingly recurs when Fonny talks to Tish behind jail glass and a callback to the present tensions between Tish and Fonny’s family. The audience knows Fonny’s vision is a pipe dream. But in the moment, all apprehensions melt away. Exhilarated by the future, the two burst onto the street shouting jubilantly, and a trumpet echoes joyous notes into the sky (a triumph of Britell’s inventive score). We’re absorbed in their youth and innocence, and we feel as if we could watch them fall in love a thousand times over.
Beale Street does not mistake innocence for naiveté. Tish is only nineteen, but she grows to understand (and internally wrestle with) the institutional racism that imprisons both her lover and her alike. In her breakout role, Layne attains an unparalleled emotional depth, layering on childlike purity, adolescent passion, and resilience far beyond her years. The most successful example of her narration is a poetic scene that evokes undertones of slavery. As a perfume saleswoman, she describes with an indignant tone the differences between white and black male customers. The black customer applies perfume to his own hand, while the white man grabs her hand and forces it to his nose, lingering for too long, establishing dominance over her body.
If Jenkins’ comments on the black experience in 1970s America are any indication, Tish and Fonny won’t get a happy ending. By the film’s close, Fonny has taken a plea deal, and the new family reunites through brief meetings over a prison table, a far cry from the table of Fonny’s vision for the future. Tish and Fonny hold hands and look at one another, their faces stained with stoic resignation, while their son scribbles with crayons, accustomed to the marred life society has ascribed to him. But there’s still love there, beneath their tired glances, within and beyond the walls of the prison. After all, this is a film about a love that transcends time and physical boundaries to bind together two young people, strengthened by a shared cultural experience. Under Jenkins’ eloquent direction, Beale Street doesn’t talk. It sings.