With Martin Luther King Jr. Day and dreams for an equal society in mind, the arrival of “If Beale Street Could Talk” to the big screen is undeniably timely. After awing audiences with the dazzling and poignant “Moonlight,” director Barry Jenkins proves once more that his talents know no bounds. Jenkins’ latest piece, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” juxtaposes flickers of the beauty, innocence and warmth of young love with the rotten and bitter reality of racial injustice in the 1970s. With breathtaking visuals and a memorable score, Jenkins revives James Baldwin’s beloved love story, honoring the late novelist and shedding light on the societal inequality that our nation has yet to overcome still today.
Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephan James, “Race”) and Tish (KiKi Layne, “Veracity”) have always belonged to each other. Neighbors in Harlem since childhood, the nature of their relationship evolved as they grew, but the love between them was always unquestioned, true and pure. Fonny and Tish’s future marriage plans are tested when their worlds are turned upside-down with news of both Fonny’s wrongful conviction of rape and Tish’s unplanned pregnancy. Led by Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King “Ray”), Tish and Fonny’s families crusade to prove Fonny’s innocence and prepare for Tish’s baby, struggling against a system constructed to deny them justice.
Hands down, one of the most impressive aspects of the film is the brilliant cinematography. Jenkins stays true to the same style he established in “Moonlight,” filling the screen with rich colors and expertly interspersing close-up shots. The honey-golds, yellows, deep reds and warm brown tones that dominate the film’s color palate, paired with the incredibly personalized camera movement invite the viewer inside the emotional worlds of the characters. In one especially impactful sequence, we watch a flashback of artistically-minded Fonny crafting an unshaped sculpture out of wood. The camera pans around Fonny as he inspects his work, the smoke from a cigarette between his lips gracefully twirling into the air. The smoke moves about in the air as Fonny paces the floor, creating the stunning image of a dance between the smoke and Fonny in sync with the accompanying melodic score.
Also to Jenkin’s credit is his clever interplay of auditory and visual components. “If Beale Street Could Talk” balances the heavy and dark with the light and beautiful, simultaneously translating Baldwin’s words about the wonders of first love and the racist outside world’s threat to it to screen. The score reflects these contrasting themes, somehow managing to sound both deeply heartbreaking and hopeful. Though at times the steady-nature of the film can make some moments drag a bit long, it is not so much that the quality of Jenkin’s creation can be waved aside. All blended together, the strong use of color, emotional tangibility of the actors and well-crafted score create a powerful effect that can only be described as symphonic.