If Beale Street Could Talk

Nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay

There are more than a few love stories being told in Barry Jenkins’s exquisite If Beale Street Could Talk. First and foremost, there is the romance of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), who grew up together in Harlem and have recently become engaged, sometime in the early 1970s.

Poster for the romantic drama If Beale Street Could TalkThere is also the steadfast loyalty that binds family members together, even under the direst circumstances. Tish is loved most ferociously and unconditionally by her mother, Sharon (a magnificent Regina King), who intervenes forcefully on Fonny’s behalf when he is falsely accused of rape and thrown in jail, just a few months before Tish realizes she is pregnant with his child.

But If Beale Street Could Talk could also be described as a love letter to the colour spectrum – to the ravishing visual possibilities of gold autumn leaves and dusky-blue New York streets. It’s also about Jenkins’s love for his myriad influences, among them writer and civil-rights activist James Baldwin, who wrote the 1974 novel on which the film is based.

The story moves around in time, freely interweaving social history and personal memory, with a slow-building emotional crescendo. The politically barbed empathy that crept up so subtly around the edges of Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight, has burst into full, forceful bloom here. Jenkins uses old archival photographs and Baldwin’s own indelible words to reflect at length on the turbulent history of black life in America, and on its cruel legacies of racial profiling, police brutality and mass incarceration.

There is a powerful tension at work in If Beale Street Could Talk between the harsh, unsentimental realism of its story and the optimistic glow in which Jenkins wraps his characters, as if urging us to see the world both as it is and as it could be. That tension finds perfect expression in a final shot that I won’t give away, except to say that it achieves a wondrously harmonious balance: distanced yet intimate, heartbreaking yet restorative, a reminder of the goodness we can and must find in every moment, and of the injustice that makes goodness necessary.

– Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

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