The following review is part of our coverage of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Love is something that comes up a lot in relation to writer/director Barry Jenkins. The word and the concept feature heavily in his films, explored with such lyrical, sweeping beauty that it can make you feel it almost as intensely as you can read it as displayed on the faces of his stars in stunning close-up. Love also factors heavily into discussions about Jenkins’ work, because it’s almost impossible to ignore just how good he is at portraying it in all of its forms. It’s even prominently featured in the official blurb on If Beale Street Could Talk from TIFF, where the film celebrated its world premiere, with TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey writing that it “is without doubt a romance but it’s stronger than that because it refuses to indulge fantasy. […] Barry Jenkins’s latest shows him to be our most clear-eyed chronicler of love.”
But it’s also in the way that Jenkins shoots his actors, and in the way he pieces his narratives together. There’s never a second in his work where his intense care for his characters, for their stories, and for his craft, is any less than palpable. Here is an artist, his work assures you, so brilliant and so dedicated that you can trust him to tackle almost anything. Even an adaptation of a similarly brilliant artist’s writing.
Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of young love tested and threatened — but never broken — by the brutality of a hateful, racist world in 1970s New York. 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) are childhood friends whose lifelong bond has only recently grown into something more. Just as their relationship begins to blossom with an engagement and a baby on the way, Fonny is framed by a racist cop and thrown into jail with little hope of a fair trial — or any timely trial at all. Armed with the support of her family (and shouldering the blame from her future mother-in-law), Tish must do everything in her often wrenchingly limited power to fight for her love and their lives.
Weaving together the past and the present, masterful interpretations of Baldwin’s incredible prose, gorgeous visuals, and a sweeping score, If Beale Street Could Talk draws audiences into its overwhelming mix of emotions all at once. You fall deeply in love with Tish and Fonny’s swooning romance and their cautious optimism, and you fall into despair over Fonny’s crumbling resolve in prison and the thwarted efforts of his supporters to extract a modicum of justice from a system designed to brutalize black men. Lyrical reflections on love flow into piercing meditations on the sinister inhumanity of the prison system, and the crushing weight of white supremacy.
All of this is realized in stunning fashion by an almost uniformly excellent cast. James is captivating as Fonny, a sensitive young artist struggling to stay strong when his life is torn away from him just as he was finding his voice and his soul. He’s both a dreamy leading man and a tragic hero. Regina King and Colman Domingo put in deep, empathetic work as Tish’s parents pushed to the edge of their emotional and financial limits in their efforts to support their daughter, their future son-in-law, and their grandchild on the way. But no one is more compelling than Layne as Tish, equally devastating in wide-eyed love as she is in face-breaking turmoil. In a film rich with some of the most powerful prose ever written, her non-verbal expressions still mange to be the most nuanced and powerful of all.
All together, these elements combine into an almost overwhelming cinematic experience. As beautiful as a love song, and as piercing as an indictment, If Beale Street Could Talk is a complex and awe-inspiring portrait of black love, life and survival in 1970s America that’s every as resonant today. It’s a film so clearly made with passion, devotion, and love that it inspires the same in those who watch it and become absorbed by it.