“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
– James Baldwin
Barry Jenkins follows his Oscar-winning Moonlightwith a film that’s as expressively moving as it is visually sumptuous. The director gained the rights to James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk prior to Jenkin’s big breakthrough in 2016, and his take on the famed writer’s novelis a gorgeous experience that enraptures, evokes and enrages in equal measure.
Baldwin’s novel painted a stirring picture of young love while also illustrating the dark forces that too often douse that love and tear at familial bonds. In Jenkins’ hands, Baldwin’s vision is realized with a grandeur and intimacy that communicates the story’s inherent grace and anger—while also cementing Jenkins as one of the most eloquent filmmakers working today. Beale Street is set in 1970s Harlem, and the film highlights all of the sun-soaked beauty of the neighborhood and stylish cool of the era. At the heart of the tale are two people who have found love in a place full of it—but also a place where powers beyond theirs conspire to extinguish anything resembling joy.
The harshness of that reality becomes all too clear when young Tish (Kiki Layne) discovers that she’s pregnant. A young couple with so much stacked against them, Tish and Fonny (Stephan James) are no doubt joyous at their soon-to-be new addition, as is Tish’s family, but they have no money and no place to live. Tish and Fonny’s love is complicated, both by their abject poverty and by racist machinations outside their control.
Fonny winds up in prison, with his loved ones working tirelessly to exonerate him and get him home. Baldwin’s story may be ‘70s-specific, speaking to post-Vietnam urban America and the disillusionment of the Nixon years, but there is so much that resonates regardless of era. This feels like a contemporary story, and the scope of struggle, joy, pain and beauty that exists within the experiences of black folks has rarely been more poetically realized than Jenkins does here.
Upon learning of the pregnancy, most of Fonny’s family’s reaction is much less exuberant than Tish’s. Both broods are brought together to break the news to Fonny’s mother and father, and there is simmering hostility between Tish’s sister (Teyonah Parris) and Fonny’s, as well as his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) expressing obvious disdain for Tish. The disparity in the respective family reactions conveys an honesty without ever leaning on cliché; as is the case with Baldwin’s novel, the predictable “beats” are eschewed for something more layered—and more illuminating. That Jenkins has shifted this scene to such a prominent, early place in the film serves the storytelling well, and sets the stage for this beautifully tragic tale to unfold without ever succumbing to bleak inevitability.