New York Times Movie Review

Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Review: Trusting Love in a World Ruled by Hate

By Manhola Dargis

Every so often, the characters in Barry Jenkins’s anguished and mournful “If Beale Street Could Talk” look straight at the camera, and at you. In some movies, this kind of direct address can seem conspiratorial, suggesting that you and a character are in on a joke. Elsewhere, these gazes seem accusatory, assaultive, beseeching; here, most feel intimate and inviting, but also expansive. When two lovers look at each other in this movie, the tenderness in their eyes softens everything, creating a radiance that folds around them like a blanket, blunting the world. You feel the warmth, the softness, too.

One of the most pivotal looks in the movie is directed at the 22-year-old Alonzo (Stephan James, a heartbreaker) as he stands in a pale swirl of cigarette smoke next to a sculpture he’s creating. A haunting, somewhat elusive man known as Fonny, he turns wood, stone and metal into art, and is similarly transforming his identity as a black man in America. He dreams, sleeps and makes art and love in a West Village basement apartment with no charm and a bathtub in the middle of it. Now, as he faces his work, the camera circles Fonny as smoke billows around him in the opposite direction.

Illuminated by a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, Fonny looks beautiful, holy. He is sanctified by this vision of himself, by his desires and by the love — of a woman and of Jenkins himself — that helps define him. This is also how his fiancée, Tish (KiKi Layne), sees him and how she shares him with us as she tells their story, which takes place largely in New York in the early 1970s. This romantically swoony vision of the beloved seems like a reverie from a bohemian fantasy, the kind once pursued by hungry young strivers in Paris and the old Greenwich Village. Except that Fonny and Tish are loving while black, an existential truth that is turned into a nightmare.

This is Jenkins’s third feature-length movie and his follow-up to “Moonlight,” which announced him as a major American filmmaker. He wrote and directed “Beale Street,” closely adapting it from the 1974 James Baldwin novel. The story tracks Fonny and Tish’s life together, starting around the time she realizes she’s pregnant. As it hopscotches around, jumping from the present to the past and back, it replays scenes from their shared childhood in Harlem and, after their friendship turns to romance, their budding life together. The story eventually focuses on the present with Fonny in jail and Tish fighting — with help from their families — to get him released.

In most white screen romances, the love between a man and a woman (and its tests) tends to be framed in personal terms, as a matter of individual will, of good or foolish choices of the heart and head. The greater world always presses in on the star-crossed lovers even when the movie pretends otherwise, shaping or just quietly tugging at their story. Here, the world — white, pitiless, punishing — comes down like a hammer on Fonny and Tish. Because no matter the purity and grace of their love when they wander the Village, or eat in a friendly Spanish restaurant that was a Baldwin favorite, they are never simply two people in love but also an affront to the power of the white world. The instrument of that supremacy in “Beale Street” is a lizardy white beat cop (Ed Skrein), who frames Fonny for rape. How the cop pulls this off isn’t of much concern. It’s a given that the system is racist, rigged, which Jenkins partly conveys through the dawning consciousness of Fonny’s white lawyer (Finn Wittrock). For the lovers and their families what matters is Fonny’s freedom, which they struggle to obtain with the lawyer they can’t afford and by reaching out to the rape victim, a pawn in the cop’s scheme. Tish’s mother, Sharon, (Regina King, reliably forceful) even travels to Puerto Rico to confront the woman (Emily Rios), which uneasily complicates the story instead of enriching it.

In “Beale Street,” Jenkins is inviting you to look deeply at these men and women, to see how they look to, and at, each other. He does this primarily through an expressionist visual style that can make words superfluous. The ethereal vision of Fonny wreathed in smoke isn’t only striking; it exalts this moment and communicates its evanesce, turning emotion and thought into image. A sensitive colorist, Jenkins’s work here is subtler than in “Moonlight,” though he again uses it to deepen the mood and transmit ideas: the life-affirming green associated with Tish’s family; the blue and gold that Fonny and Tish wear when they first pledge themselves to each other — colors that later resurface in jail.

When Jenkins is true to himself, he soars; he stumbles, though, when he’s overly faithful to the novel or doesn’t trust the audience. (A showily centered shot of a landlord’s skullcap reads like a sign for “Friendly Jew!”) The trip to Puerto Rico affirms Sharon’s love and force of will, but mostly feels like one female victim badgering another. In another exchange, again involving women at odds, Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) slaps his wife (a blazing Aunjanue Ellis) to the floor. The blow upstages everything, including the very fine actors, and the tension between secular and religious love. The violence is in the novel, where it’s far too casual, but slapping a woman just doesn’t register as it once did.

Tish’s voice-over does a lot of work, guiding you through the narrative turns as it adds social commentary and personal asides. Layne and James are appealing, but perhaps because their characters’ lives are so fragmented, their performances never build the emotional momentum or find the depths of feeling the story needs. Jenkins does find it, though, most memorably in a staggering flashback with Fonny’s old friend, Daniel (a brilliant Brian Tyree Henry). Daniel has just been released from prison, after being framed by the police. Now, as he sits in Fonny and Tish’s home, gently held by love and friendship — and by Jenkins’s limpid gaze — Daniel seems to grow heavier, monumental. He’s sharing a familiar story of raw, brutal American racial injustice, and it is devastating.