Fresh off the tremendous success of the Academy Award-winning Moonlight comes Barry Jenkins’ third feature film If Beale Street Could Talk. Based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, this romantic drama tracks the relationship of Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) as the latter finds himself incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
From the dreamy opening shot of the young couple strolling through a distinctly Autumnal uptown New York, the colourful beauty of Beale Street is established from the get-go and the film remains gorgeous until the final scene. Indeed, James Laxton’s cinematography – with its vibrant contrasts and seamless transitions renders the film a lush work of art. Beale Street’s sheer visual beauty is supported by a truly touching story that is at once poignant and painful.
As the strong and hugely likeable Tish, Layne’s voice is powerful and poetic as it carries the lyricism of Baldwin’s writing, punctuating the film’s rhythmic narrative as the audience align themselves with the protagonist’s predicament.
Beale Street’s ensemble cast is scene-stealing in their representation of modern dysfunctional families. As Tish’s mother and father, Regina King and Colman Domingo effortlessly exude familial warmth as they reinforce the message of parental love that lies at the heart of Beale Street’s core. Additionally, as Tish’s protective older sister Ernestine, Teyonah Parris delivers the film’s most satisfying lines with perfect timing.
As a director, Jenkins’ eye for detail is impressive, particularly in the film’s busier scenes, as the director summons the warmth of family kitchens, the bustle of Harlem’s streets, and the quirk of Manhattan’s supermarkets.
There is, however, much more to the film than its pleasurable aesthetics. Jenkins does not hesitate in shining a light on the frightening reality of America’s systemic racism. Whether it is in the way white men feel entitled to Tish’s body, or the underlying threat of police brutality, it becomes clear that Beale Street represents an important thread of America’s cultural tapestry, as well as succeeding as a cinematic and visual masterpiece.
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