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

by James Robins / 12 March, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - If Beale Street Could Talk movie review

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.”

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.



Video: eOne Films

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


How to enhance your dining experience – with water
103174 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Dining

How to enhance your dining experience – with water…

by Metro

A stunning dining experience isn’t just about food and wine. Water plays a big part too.

Read more
Facebook won't give up its insidious practices without a fight
103856 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Tech

Facebook won't give up its insidious practices wit…

by Peter Griffin

Facebook came under fire for its response to the live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack, but it's digital nudging that's also concerning.

Read more
In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Christchurch
103800 2019-03-21 15:36:46Z World

In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Chr…

by Lauren Buckeridge

Countries around the world have put on a show of solidarity for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack.

Read more
The tangled path to terrorism
103777 2019-03-21 09:59:55Z Psychology

The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

Read more
If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it
103768 2019-03-21 09:31:27Z Social issues

If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it

by The Listener

The little signs among the banks of flowers said, “This is not New Zealand.” They meant, “We thought we were better than this.” We were wrong.

Read more
Extremism is not a mental illness
103785 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

Extremism is not a mental illness

by The Mental Health Foundation of NZ

Shooting people is not a symptom of a mental illness. White supremacy is not a mental illness.

Read more
PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more