If Beale Street Could Talk is one of 2018’s most beautiful, most well-rounded, most enriching cinematic experiences, and it begs to be seen on a big screen.
Based on the James Baldwin novel and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), it’s a stirring family drama focused on a young black couple Alonzo—"Fonny"—and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne) in the 1970s.
Within the first few minutes of the film, we learn that Tish is pregnant, and Alonzo is incarcerated. He’s jailed for a sexual assault against a woman, something he vehemently denies. While he awaits trial, Tish remains loyal and must inform her family of her pregnancy.
The extended scene when Tish tells her parents and, subsequently, Fonny’s family that she is pregnant, hits all kind of notes. It runs the virtual gamut of emotions, setting the pulse for the rest of the movie. It’s also where Regina King begins to shine as Sharon, Tish’s beautifully, unconditionally supportive mother. It’s the beginning of a performance that is gathering much deserved awards. A Supporting Actress Oscar nomination seems inevitable, and King would be the frontrunner.
King isn’t alone in the magic department. Colman Domingo is terrific as Tish’s good-natured dad, as is Teyonah Parris as Tish’s strong sister, Ernestine. The pregnancy revelation scene is capped with a sudden turn of emotions as Fonny’s family has a much different reaction, led by their religious mom, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis). Jenkins and company take us from a place that is very comfortable to extremely raw in a flash, and it feels genuine. In fact, Beale Street doesn’t contain a moment that doesn’t feel genuine.
We see Tish and Fonny’s relationship and eventual engagement through flashbacks. They’re childhood friends who become lovers, their sweet courtship tinged by tragedy because we know Fonny sits in jail as we witness their history. He has an alibi and many witnesses to his innocence, but he’s a black man living in Harlem in the ‘70s. One would hope that Fonny has a chance for a future raising his child outside of prison walls, but the odds are not in his favor.
A scene where Sharon travels to Puerto Rico in an effort to persuade Fonny’s accuser to recant her story is Beale Street‘s other emotional bomb, where King further cements her status as 2018’s Best Supporting Actress. Nothing King has done before will prepare you for what she does in this film. It’s a career-altering performance.
As the film’s central actress, Layne holds the movie together with a steady, strong performance. James breaks hearts as an imprisoned man who still manages joyful smiles when he hears he’s going to be a father, but definitely shows signs of strain as his situation worsens. As ensembles go, Beale Street is one of 2018’s best.
On top of having some of the year’s best acting, Beale Street scores big points for its cinematography by James Laxton (who also shot Moonlight). This is one of those films where every damn shot is perfectly done and beautifully crafted. Nicholas Britell provides a score that’s exquisite in every way and is every bit as effective as Laxton’s camerawork. Britell also composed for Moonlight; Jenkins has assembled a mightily consistent team. I can also sing the praises of its art direction, costuming, soundtrack choices and more.
I thought Moonlight was a very good movie. If Beale Street Could Talk is a great movie, a masterpiece, in a year that had a few. Jenkins is quickly establishing himself as one of our finest directors, a poetic visual artist that has full command of cast and script. It’s an extreme pleasure to witness his brilliance and the brilliance of his fine cast.