Intertitles, text at the opening of the film, explain how for celebrated author James Baldwin, “every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city.”
“Beale Street,” he said, “is our legacy.”
Within the first five minutes of director Barry Jenkins’ latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” adapted from Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, a distinct tone is set that resonates throughout the next two hours.
It’s one of idyllic love, wonderfully shimmering in bright colors, fighting to survive. It’s one of weight, pushing its characters through a world set against them.
Though the “Beale Street” of Baldwin and Jenkins is of Harlem in the 1970s, the film resonates across the decades, proving ever true today in critical and emotional ways.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is the best film no one is talking about, and yet it’s also the one moviegoers need to see the most.
Audiences follow Tish, a 19-year-old girl forced into womanhood as she becomes pregnant by Fonnie, her 22-year-old fiancé and lifelong best friend recently accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.
Theirs is a simple story told slowly over the course of two hours as Jenkins allows viewers to linger in the moment and feel the heaviness implicit in the emotional and societal stakes.
“Beale Street” is a tale of America, told powerfully by a master confident in his craft.
Key to the success of “Beale Street” is newcomer KiKi Layne, who gives Tish a quiet, humbling grace that belies her unenviable position. As the film’s narrator and protagonist, Layne steadily gives audiences an emotional touchstone to cling to over the course of the movie as well as inform and contextualize the narrative.
In a year with any number of terrific performances from first-time leading ladies, Layne’s performance shines brightest.
As Fonnie, Stephan James displays immense range in his eyes, especially as they flicker with the trembling of his voice. This gives Jenkins free range to focus the camera straight on and allow James to bring the audience inside Fonnie’s soul with a crackling look.
Separated by the glass of a prison visiting room, Jenkins pushes the viewer to become Tish, to become Fonnie, with camera placement as audiences see the world of “Beale Street” as the characters do.
Recent Golden Globe winner Regina King gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Tish’s mother, balancing quiet strength with painful outbursts of grief in almost effortless fashion.
Jenkins supplies “Beale Street” with a perfect assortment of talent to bring Baldwin’s characters to life, especially Colman Domingo as Tish’s father.
But in the matter of 15 minutes, Brian Tyree Henry takes over the entire movie with a dynamic, larger-than-life presence that fills the screen until it shrinks away to nothing.
Henry and James develop an instant kinship that evolves over the course of a conversation as two old friends slowly lower their guard from “I’m great” to “I’m fine” to finally “I’m not fine.”
Emotion reverberates throughout “Beale Street” through the artistry of the performances and James Laxton’s expert cinematography, but every peak and valley – no matter how faint or strong – rises and falls on the notes of Nicholas Britell’s flawless score.
Whether it’s the cringe of a wailing violin or the bravado of a jazz trumpet, Britell sets the tone for each scene and speaks volumes in poignant moments lacking dialogue.
In a just world, “Beale Street” would easily earn eight Academy Award nominations, but will likely be lucky to receive three or four.
But as time should tell, awards for this masterpiece will not matter.
With “Beale Street,” Jenkins cements his status as this generation’s cinematic poet laureate of the American condition. His latest feature is a wonder of true artistry, filled with romance amid pain, grief within joy.
Spoken with the words of a poet and shown through the lens of a visionary, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a revelation, a can’t miss, genuine, instant classic piece of art.