Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk starts at a disadvantage. As both follow-up to the award-winning Moonlight, and an adaption of James Baldwin, the bar is set quite high. For writer-director Jenkins to almost clear it is a testament to his talents; for him to remain so firmly in command of his vision throughout is to announce something else: he’s here to stay.
Set in early 1970’s New York City, the film revolves around the Rivers and the Hunts, two Black families brought together by Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), young and in love—and also, as we quickly learn, pregnant and incarcerated, respectively. What follows is a sift through time for both characters, and others spinning within their orbit. The Rivers rally behind Tish and labour to get Fonny a fair trial; we meet their white lawyer, and their alibi, a wounded ex-con (Brian Tyree Henry). A racist cop looms; as does the balancing presence of Tish’s resilient mother (Regina King, providing the film’s best scene). This diverting narrative is owed in part to the film’s origins as a novel. It’s also a clear structural intention, one that outlines everyone’s role within an (unfair) system.
It’s impossible to say If Beale Street Could Talk is mediocre. Jenkins’ craftsmanship is evident, even if takes time to manifest and drags along some clunky acting and repetitive staging. What the film strains to achieve remains laudable. In fact, that Jenkins failed is in keeping with the film’s very theme. He still made his movie, his way; be glad of it, and carry on.