Barry Jenkins is the kind of director who can turn long scenes of simple dialogue into full-blown action sequences. His latest movie, If Beale Street Could Talk, is built on a foundation of these long, lingering scenes that leave you exhausted the way heart-pumping thrills do – based on the book of the same name by James Baldwin, and following the story of Tish (KiKi Layne), a young woman recently impregnated by her fiance, Vonny (Stephan James), who was falsely imprisoned after being accused of a rape he didn’t commit.
Working from Baldwin’s classic novel, Jenkins knows that he has plenty to work with – generous takes give room for natural pauses, emotion, explanation, and a dense exploration of the layered stories this movie takes on. Jenkins’ dialogue is good, but his ability to translate it from script to screen is even better. With a cast as good as this – aside from the excellent leads, the supporting players are made up of tried-and-tested prestige performers including Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, and Diego Luna – and stories as rich and culturally relevant, Jenkins doesn’t have to push hard to find the utterly riveting, compelling, and even exciting in his latest entry into his portfolio for “basically the best director working today, actually, even if the Academy wants to pretend that anyone’s going to remember Bohemian Crhapsody in a year’s time.”
But let’s not spend too long snarking on Bohemian Rhapsody when we could be talking about how profoundly special Beale Street is as a movie in its own right. One of the things I loved so much about Jenkins’ work in the sublime Moonlight was his ability to balance gorgeous cinematic craft with a laser-focus on the human story, and Beale Street carries on that legacy proudly – it’s an outstandingly visually beautiful film, but never once does the handsomeness overwhelm the stringently raw social commentary at the film’s heart.
Like Baldwin’s brilliant book, Beale Street takes on interlocking layers of social problems: the brutality of the prison systems overlaps the treatment of black men overlaps with the treatment of black women, which overlaps with the treatment of women in general, which touches on immigration and rape culture and the horror of reliving traumas. It’s the kind of film that would feel gruelling if it wasn’t imbued with an utter abundance of warmth, centred around love and family in a way that feels stark against the grim backdrop as opposed to schmaltzy. This is, after all, a romance film at its heart, a story between Tish and Vonny discovering themselves and each other and how the world views them, separately and together.
If Beale Street Could Talk aches with both hope and hopelessness, a balance that Jenkins strikes perfectly in an incredibly assured follow-up to a movie that’s already considered one of the best of all time. Moving, relevant, and fiercely heartfelt, it’s already a contender for the best film of the year, and it’s going to take a lot to beat out this perfectly-pitched insta-classic.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via EW.com)