Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Poster for If Beale Street Could Talk, featuring Stephan James and KiKi Layne

****½

Tish and Fonny are in love. She is 19 and pregnant; he is 22 and in prison. So starts If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. Equal parts romance story, family drama and indictment of racial injustice in America, the story follows Tish and her family as they try to prove Fonny’s innocence, interspersed with flashbacks to the beginning of the young couple’s relationship. This year may mark the 45th anniversary of the novel’s release, but the story it tells is as relevant as ever, and it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker better suited to this sensitive and heartfelt exploration of black life and love than Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins.

As with that film, if Beale Street Could Talk is awash with understated and natural performances from a unvaryingly stellar cast. At the centre lie Stephan James (Selma, Race) and newcomer KiKi Layne, who portray the young lovers with a powerful sincerity that never approaches cloying sentimentality. Each performance is enhanced by Jenkins’ direction, which captures their vulnerability with a rare sensitivity that allows the viewer to be a part of the intimacy between characters in a way that feels organic rather than voyeuristic. Often, shots linger as Jenkins lets the actors do their thing, and this trust in his cast works wonders. Nicholas Britell’s Oscar-nominated score similarly augments every scene, capturing perfectly the bittersweet emotion of a couple pulled between the joy of love and the pain of injustice.

Jenkins’ script is as thoughtful as his direction, gradually taking us through the key moments of Tish and Fonny’s budding relationship in parallel to the slow reveal of the circumstances behind Fonny’s incarceration and Tish’s family’s attempts to exonerate him. The pace is leisurely but the film never drags, thanks to the engaging drama and sympathetic characters that have been masterfully constructed by Jenkins and his cast. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has created a deeply human story; a story with a strong activist spirit and a romantic sensibility, and a story that acknowledges the impact of racial injustice on African-American lives but refuses to let them be defined by it.

If Beale Street Could Talk opens in UK cinemas on 8th February 2019.