Based on a well-loved James Baldwin novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a story of love in the face of injustice. Director Barry Jenkins, in his follow-up to the Oscar winning “Moonlight,” has crafted a stately film that takes us inside the relationship at the heart of the story and the heartlessness that threatens to rip it apart.
Childhood friends “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) kept their relationship platonic until it blossomed into love when she was 19 and he was 22. With a lifetime of familiarity behind them, their relationship progresses quickly. They move into together and wait for the birth of their first child when tragedy strikes. Framed for sexual assault by racist cop Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) Fonny is thrown in jail. “I hope nobody ever has to look at somebody they love through class,” Tish says. The families rally to raise money for his defence but circumstance conspires to keep him incarcerated.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a love story framed against a backdrop of disenfranchisement and turmoil. It is about a woman’s love for her fiancé, a mother and father‘s for their daughter, the power of love to be the fuel of survival. As the faces of this love Jenkins displays an impeccable eye for casting. Through their body language and easy chemistry Layne and James hand in performances ripe with empathy, power and, here’s that word again, love.
There is a delicacy to the filmmaking. Jenkins takes his time, slowly building the story of heartbreak tinged with hope. It’s a period piece but placed alongside the spate of newspaper stories of young African-American men by police it feels as timely as today’s headlines.