The much-awaited follow-up to the massively celebrated Moonlight proves that visionary Barry Jenkins has solidified his craft as one of the most poignant and breathtaking directors of this generation. His adaptation of the beloved James Baldwin novel encapsulates the hope and beauty of true love in the face of injustice. Along with Jenkins’s signature mesmerizing color palettes and character-defining shots, it’s the everlasting, tender moments that take this film to new heights.
We take our place beside our heroine, Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) as she tumbles through a life separated from her love, Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James). At the top of the film, she reveals to him – through the impenetrable glass of a penitentiary – that she is carrying his baby. Though the news brings joy to the young couple, the deafening reality of their situation lays the groundwork for the progression of the remaining two hours of the film. On Tish’s quest to free the father-to-be from the confinement he has been wrongly convicted, we hold her through her highs and mourn during her lows. Explored in Moonlight and expanded in Beale Street, Jenkins flaunts his mastery of empathy, of positioning the audience so close to his characters, we are able to reach out and console them at their worst.
As the stars of the film deliver heartbreakingly remarkable performances, the supporting cast shines just as bright, delivering some of my favorite moments in the film. Regina King, who plays Tish’s supportive, fearless mother Sharon, delivers a performance guaranteed to tug your heart out. She steals the spotlight in the third act, from the moment she arrives in Puerto Rico to the gut-wrenching outcome of her confrontation with Fonny’s accuser. The entire film is filled to the brim with emotions, but her last gasp of frustration is the most vulnerable and staggering moment of all.
The rest of the family follow suit with absolutely captivating performances: Colman Domingo as Tish’s sympathetic father Joseph, and the resolute, tenacious Ernestine, played by Teyonah Parris. Domingo’s solemn conversation with Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) and the nail-biting, teeth-grinding monologue from Parris aimed the women of Fonny’s family are also two standout moments from the incredible actors.
Holding a smaller role, Bryan Tyree Henry, smashes every line, every action, as Fonny’s recently-released friend Daniel Carty. His character serves as the audience’s window into the possibilities of Fonny’s fate. During the film, we don’t witness firsthand what happens to Fonny inside the prison. We stay with his Tish – always wondering, always worried. As we sit and listen to Daniel’s unspeakable experiences, the horrors and doubts that encircle our thoughts become realized and possible. His performance is one of my favorites.
Once again, Barry has teamed up with Nicholas Britell to create a score so whimsical, hopeful, and devastating – the perfect accompaniment to the story and characters. There are plenty of quiet moments, moments that Jenkins simply allows you to be present, to just take in and absorb the emotions of the scene. Britell’s score echoes his decision with precision and grace. If you close your eyes at any moment, it elevates the sense of belonging in the film.
Before having seen the film, I had the privilege of reading through James Baldwin’s masterpiece. I fell in absolute love with the prose and his ability to elongate small, gentle moments into delicacies of embrace. In storytelling, you’re often taught to “start late and get out early.” I believe the novel perfectly encapsulates this and Barry Jenkins was the quintessential man to portray it perfectly on screen.
There are some significant changes that Jenkins implemented in his adaptation, the biggest one being the ending. In the novel, the ending is quite abrupt. Fonny is still imprisoned, Tish hasn’t had the baby, and Frank has just lost his job and gotten in a fatal car accident. In the film, we continue the story a bit longer than the book, all the way until their son is walking, talking, and able to visit Fonny, who is sadly still not released. I’m thinking Jenkins wanted to portray a light of hope at the end of the film, something a bit lighter than the original intended ending.
Touching, stunning, and absolutely moving, If Beale Street Could Talk was one of my favorite films of 2018.