After watching Moonlight back in 2016 and being absolutely blown away, Barry Jenkins’ next film, If Beale Street Could Talk, was very high on my list. Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is without a doubt one of the best films that came out in 2018/early 2019. The film focuses on the relationship of Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt, an extremely talented wood sculptor, and the shy Tish Rivers as she struggles to prove Alonzo’s innocence when he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Overall, the plot is simple, but that doesn’t really take away anything from the film – it actually works in favor of it. The movie presents its themes in a smart way to the audience and never loses its focus. It uses the main 2 characters to embody the themes of injustice and love in a way that it doesn’t have to constantly remind you of them. For example, when Brian Tyree Henry’s character is having a conversation with Fonn, it slowly turns into a discussion about the US prison system. The dialogue is written in way that the conversation actually feels like something people would discuss in real life, and it isn’t just tagged on as something to hit the viewer over the head with.
The lead actors, Kiki Layne and Stephan James, really do a fantastic job in breathing life into their characters to make them feel human. Stephan James’ performance is constantly mesmerizing. He brings out both Fonny’s charm and his pain without saying a single word – just by his face and looks. Kiki Layne is very much the heart of the film: her innocence and strong will to find justice while trying to hold her family together makes you root for her every second. Regina King gives one of the best performances of her career. Her character is, at many times, the audience’s voice in the film. She says things that you’d want to say in certain scenes, and it’s fantastic. Her character’s own personal journey in the movie is very important in pushing the plot forward and making the 3rd act even more impactful emotionally. The supporting cast also do a great job to support and shine in the scenes they have. There are a lot of surprise actors in the film that I didn’t expect who are only in the film for 5 minutes or less. They all do a great job as they do in everything else.
The cinematography is very similar to Moonlight, yet it has a totally different feel. Cinematographer James Laxton captures the beauty and the harsh realities of Harlem in that era perfectly. The camera work and the lighting never overtake a scene, they’re just used enough to make each moment feel natural and emotionally rich. There are, however, moments where the camera and the score does the talking over the dialogue. For instance, there’s scenes where the score just overtakes a moment, and the camera just poetically moves to enhance it. Barry Jenkins uses the same technique in Moonlight, and it works just as well here – perhaps some of the best use of slow motion and score build-up I’ve seen recently.
Speaking of score, Nicholas Britell returns to collaborate with Barry Jenkins from Moonlight and does an amazing job of making a somber yet romantic score for the film. The jazz-inspired instrumentals really create a unique atmosphere. The score feels like something that actually exists in the world with the characters themselves. In flashbacks involving Alonzo and Tish, the score just feels very natural and works during scenes of their romance. Nicholas uses the score at the times it is actually needed and doesn’t just unnecessarily tag on overdramatic sounds.
The editing is also great: it’s simple and works with what the story is trying to tell you. The cuts between the past and present are well done and never let the film feel boring or too slow paced, though the voiceover and the flashback style did throw me off at first. Even during the flashbacks scenes, the editing drives the plot forward rather than just showing you a flashback. It helps build up more layers to the main characters and lays the foundation for their journey to come. If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that I highly recommend watching as soon as possible. It is one of the best films that came out recently and deserves much more love. Barry Jenkins has adapted one of the most iconic novels of the 20th century close to perfectly.