Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is slightly less radical, but makes up for it with a powerfully restrained anger, and much beauty.

Adapted by Jenkins from the late James Baldwin’s book, this differs from Moonlight in its seemingly 1970s setting, hard line against religion and more, and yet there’s no mistaking that this is the work of the same director – it’s too damn moving.

After an opening explanation that notes that the needlessly criticised title isn’t meant to be taken as a strictly geographical place (instead it’s a shared experience), a tricky non-linear structure introduces us to Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonso ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), who have been friends since they were children, but have now become lovers. However, Fonny is incarcerated, and supposed photographs of the pair as kids are intercut in quick montages with genuine B+W images of prisons overflowing with black inmates and police brutality.

Tish is pregnant, and there’s a long, complex and harsh setpiece where her parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) break the news to his (Aunjanue Ellis and Michael Beach), while flashbacks show us what might have been. When Tish and Fonny look set to get a place of their own, thanks to nice landlord Levy (Dave Franco), and they enthuse about their happy lives to come, it’s truly heartbreaking.

Back in the movie’s here and now, the court case drags on, while Tish’s family keeps shelling out money to a well-meaning lawyer and Fonny considers taking a plea to reduce his sentence. After all, what else can he do? There’s a glimmer of ham when we see the slimy cop (Ed Skrein) who helped put the lad in jail, but it doesn’t matter, and we feel the pain of it all with the minimum of soapboxing.

Jenkins insisted upon filming in Harlem and there’s an authenticity to the overall look and style, and yet this isn’t concerned with nostalgia: it’s about racism, even if no one actually says the word, and hope, even in the face of so much despair.

If Beale Street Could Talk (MA) is in cinemas from February 14

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