Film review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Love and hope lights up an unjust world


Two years after his triumphant Best Picture win at the Academy Awards with the stunning Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins returns with a new project which has picked up three Oscar nominations of its own. Adapted from James Baldwin’s seminal novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk tells a story of love, loss and heartbreaking injustice through the eyes of a young black couple living in Harlem during the 1970s.

Department store worker Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and aspiring artist Fonny (Stephan James) have been friends since childhood, a friendship that slowly blossomed into romance as they grew older. After discovering the hard way that no white landlord would rent a property to a young black couple, the young lovers come across Levy (Dave Franco), a soft-soft-spoken young Jewish landlord who agrees to rent to them at a reduced price because he “enjoys seeing young couples in love regardless of their skin colour”.

After an earlier altercation with a racist cop (Ed Skrein), Fonny is arrested and falsely charged with rape, leaving Tish to face both their families alone to inform them that she is expecting her fiancé’s baby. Things are further complicated when it transpires that Fonny’s alleged victim has relocated to her native Puerto Rico, prompting Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) to go searching for her and beg her to clear the young man’s name.

Constructed around a non-linear yet never jarring narrative, If Beale Street Could Talk offers a chance to reacquaint ourselves with its director’s slow-burning poetic style and breathtaking visual techniques. Layne and James (Selma, Across The Line) put in two measured and disarmingly natural turns as two young people whose bright-eyed optimism is never dampened. Another outstanding performance comes courtesy of prolific TV and screen actress Regina King (Boyz n the Hood, Ray, Southland), whose brilliant delivery as Tish’s tough-talking mother has earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at this year’s Academy Awards.

The film is achingly beautiful and devastating in its depiction of love and race struggle. Jenkins broaches the subject of institutional racism with measured poise and dignity while staying faithful to Baldwin’s unmistakable poetic tone.

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