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If Beale Street Could Talk is yet another triumph from Moonlight's Barry Jenkins

Injustice and hatred are pitted against love and elegance in the director's second adaptation of novelist James Baldwin.

Three years ago, small independent movie Moonlight (belatedly) won the Oscar for Best Picture. Even that prize was not recognition enough for what might be the most important piece of cinema in a generation. It was directed by the visionary film-maker Barry Jenkins, who captured the urgent and passionate voice of US writer James Baldwin, not just in the airing of gay themes, but in melding the sublimely poetic and the righteously angry.

It only feels right, then, that Jenkins’ next work should be a rapturous, astonishing adaptation of one of Baldwin’s most beloved novels, If Beale Street Could Talk, about a young black couple and their families contending with a society that will not let them live in dignity.

This adored and adoring pair are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends whose love seems predestined. We first meet them hand-in-hand, strolling through an autumnal glow and exchanging secular vows: “Are you ready for this?” “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life.”

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When next we see them, they are on either side of a prison visitors window, Fonny has been jailed for a rape he had no part in and Tish is explaining, through trembling lips, that she is pregnant. Beale Street carries on in this non-linear fashion, flitting between romance’s heady rush and a separation that seems hopeless.

Yet the gorgeousness remains; each scene is a blanket of tender colour and dappled light, all broadened by Nicholas Britell’s lush score. Even Harlem – the ghettoised Harlem that Baldwin once called “hell” – is orderly and pristine. Does beauty obscure? Can elegance be reconciled with cruelty?

As if answering or pre-empting such criticism, Jenkins litters his film with harsh, ugly still photographs: police cruelty, black bodies caged, grim faces of apprehension. None of this is so powerful as when, in a flashback, Fonny shares a drink with Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just been released from jail, and in a tumble of pain details what awaits Fonny: “When you’re in there, they can do with you whatever they want.”

Moonlight, in its sensitive and piercing way, was about inner life: desire, belonging, forgiveness. Beale Street, by contrast, is turned outwards, both portraying and rebelling against an unjust world. For Jenkins, beauty is a protest, an act of resistance. “Unbow your head, sister,” one character says to Tish. “I know about suffering,” another says, “and I know that it ends.”

This is what makes If Beale Street Could Talk, even as it conveys the depth of torment, such a stirring triumph.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

Video: eOne Films

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.