“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” These words, eloquently written by author James Baldwin, appear in the first scene of the adaptation of his novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” This duality persists beyond the opening aphorism in director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight.” Through “Beale Street,” Jenkins masterfully crafts a beautiful tale — a tale told in twos.
The film tells the story of lovers Tish and Fonny, played by Kiki Layne and Stephan James. Their time together is split into two timelines: The first begins when Tish must reveal to her and Fonny’s families that she is pregnant with his child, all while Fonny is wrongly incarcerated for raping a woman he has not met.
The other narrative chronicles the couple’s evolution from a seed of childhood friendship to a blossomed youthful romance that continues until the moments before Fonny’s arrest. The chopped-and-screwed nature of the narrative moves audiences between a sense of wonder over young love and a feeling of ominous dread through the dramatic irony of knowing the couple’s future.
When the film does not delve into the past, both Fonny and Tish are forced to grow significantly in character. The pair’s evolution, however, is distinct and results in two vastly different experiences on each side of the prison bars.
Fonny’s character shift is catalyzed by physical trauma as he deals with the hardships of being a black man in prison in the 1970s. With every visit from Tish, he grows more bruised, bloodied, weary-eyed and simply exhausted.
While his partner may not be facing the same direct physical threats, she has to confront myriad hurdles in her quest to free Fonny. A major obstacle is her pregnancy, and Layne expertly conveys its impact on Tish’s body, physically expressing the pain and labor that it brings. Tish also deals with her pregnancy while working to raise money for Fonny’s lawyer. These factors give the duo a wisdom that transcends their youth — Fonny is 22 years old, while Tish is only 19.
In each scene they share, Tish and Fonny’s mutual love is evident, a testament to Layne’s and James’ phenomenal acting. While their passion may be exhibited through their dialogue, it is also epitomized in their powerful silences. Jenkins has cinematographer James Laxton to thank for the effect. The decision to opt for numerous stills throughout the film helps capture the raw emotions of each moment. Between the loving gazes shared by the couple and the melancholic stares into nowhere by the supporting cast, the silences in the film speak in a way that decibels cannot measure.
Yet the visuals do not overpower the script. Jenkins, who also wrote the film, ensured the script was bereft of banality. Tish’s lines as a narrator also come directly from the Baldwin novel, certainly making her job easier as she delivers powerful speeches.
What makes the film most poignant, however, is its layered use of stories. In many different contexts, viewers find the plot at the surface and social commentary unsubtly lurking beneath. This structure makes for a final product that truly honors the legendary civil rights advocate who conceived the original story. Baldwin’s writing explored the countless facets of racial dynamics in the United States at the peak of the civil rights movement; Jenkins ensured the film offered a similar degree of social commentary beneath its surface.
At the human, microcosmic level, viewers find stories of a friend’s welcome visit after being released from prison, a woman working in a department store serving a male clientele and a couple looking for a house. A broader analysis of each situation reveals the racist underpinnings of the justice system, the interactions across genders and the real estate industry.
That double storytelling is one of the many reasons why this film is so powerful and necessary. Both historically and in the 21st century, films rarely have honest and powerful monologues like those of Brian Tyree Henry. It allows viewers to passively engage in racial discussions that were not possible even a few years ago.
The beauty of these stories is they are not isolated to the main couple. The family members around them, played lovingly by Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris and Michael Beach, serve to support the pair through their own journeys. Whether it is Tish’s mother, travelling to Puerto Rico to find a witness for Fonny’s trial, or Fonny’s father, hustling away to help pay for their lawyer, the film’s scope is enhanced by the couple’s families and their complementary tales.
Given that the film is directed in dyads — be it in chronologies, character development or commentary — its depth is there for all to see. What ultimately makes “Beale Street” such a brilliant film, though, is its capacity to make audiences simply feel, above all else. When watching, viewers’ emotions will be stretched as they join the characters on their journeys. Considering the pressure Barry Jenkins faces post-“Moonlight,” the film represents the most fitting next act in his career.