Barry Jenkins’ dramatization of the James Baldwin classic is a spellbinding, incantation to young love set against the backdrop of a racially intolerant Harlem of the seventies.
Nineteen year old Tish played by the wide eyed and earnest Kiki Layne, falls in love with twenty two year old Fonny played by the handsome and creative Stephan James and it soon becomes crystal clear why Jenkins has cast these two newcomers in these roles. The story of love is central and it’s a masterstroke that these two new talents allow us to believe the story and focus on it completely without considering the actors who are playing it.
The score composed by Nicholas Britell is lush and evocative, immersing you in the joy and sadness of the tormented couple who must navigate the world anew once Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. This collaboration – between the composer and director is a powerful touch of genius. Harking back to the world created by Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard in their acclaimed film Mo’ Better Blues, the jazz oozes sensuality and unashamed emotion and it is hard not to get caught up with the world they are in.
As in Baldwin’s novel, Shame, is itself a theme in the film. In the film we see Tish’s initial fragility when she falls pregnant with Fonny’s child, as an unmarried mother, and has to reveal her predicament to her family and then his. We see her weakness turn to strength as she is supported by the unwavering love of her family in dealing with her trauma in the face of the disgust of Fonny’s strict religious family. When asked by Fonny’s Mother, ” Who is gonna be responsible for this baby?” Tish answers defiantly, “The father and the mother!” Her fire and intensity in taking on Mrs Hunt shows us she is already changing and growing before our eyes.
In Beale Street Jenkins’s artistry continues to overflow. Just like his Oscar Winning and breathtakingly beautiful “Moonlight” we get the same emotional feels. The story of our young lovers plays out with slow enduring close ups allowing us to make deep connections at powerful moments. When Tish has to tell her mother, Sharon, played by Emmy award-winning Regina King, that she is having Fonny’s baby the anguish is palpable. King’s eyes and a simple arching of her head indicate she already knows what is coming and the repetition of her reaching to put the needle on the record player hint that this tune has been played before. Tish’s longing and fearful eyes staring deep into the camera as she reveals her secret, hit me so hard it left me with tears streaming down my face.
The film design is also powerful with faithful attention to detail in the set and fashions of the times. Jenkins paints a dreamlike portrait of the seventies with oranges, yellows and reds and contrasts the hypnotic Harlem backdrop with the stark, black and white world of violence and injustice that strives to pervade it.
Jenkins uses superb editing to seamlessly move from the colourful seventies present to black and white race hate archive and back to the washed out world of the prison penitentiary where Fonny is forced to reside. This technique pulls us in and out of the dream, in and out of love with our characters as they struggle to maintain their relationship despite the injustice of the circumstance that they find themselves in.
With romance and heartache aplenty, if you’re looking for love this Valentine’s day spending an evening on Beale Street would definitely be enough to get your soul stirring.
If Beale Street Could Talk is out in Cinemas all over the UK now.
Michelle Brooks is a Writer, Producer and Founder of the Diverse West London Production Company Showpatrol TV.