Stir­ring & in­tox­i­cat­ing

‘Beale Street’ a lovely, heart­break­ing pic­ture of young black love

Albuquerque Journal - - VENUE - BY LIND­SEY BAHR

“Every black per­son born in Amer­ica was born on Beale Street … whether in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi, or in Har­lem, New York,” reads the ti­tle card that be­gins di­rec­tor Barry Jenk­ins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

The quote is from a 1974 James Bald­win novel, which Jenk­ins has adapted him­self for his first film since 2016’s “Moon­light.” The story is, loosely, about a preg­nant woman, Tish (KiKi Layne, a phe­nom­e­nal break­out) and her part­ner, Fonny (Stephan James), who has been wrongly jailed for a crime he didn’t com­mit. Tish and Fonny are both achingly young and beau­ti­ful, full of prom­ise and hope even amid all the in­sti­tu­tional ob­sta­cles and in­jus­tices that they face in daily life in 1970s Har­lem, such as not be­ing able to rent their own apart­ment, or buy gro­ceries at the lo­cal mart

with­out be­ing re­assessed by a po­lice of­fi­cer.

Their fu­ture, how­ever, is dashed when Fonny is jailed be­cause a woman across town has wrongly iden­ti­fied him as her rapist. Tish has to tell Fonny she’s preg­nant through a glass win­dow. Some­how, at least at first, the cir­cum­stances aren’t enough to break their spir­its, although there is the sense that both are just putting on a brave face for the other.

Back at home, Tish’s fam­ily mem­bers cel­e­brate their daugh­ter. Mom, Sharon (Regina King in a pow­er­ful per­for­mance), sis­ter, Ernes­tine (Tey­onah Par­ris) and dad, Joseph (Col­man Domingo), open up the sherry, put on a record and call Fonny’s fam­ily over to con­tinue spread­ing the news.

There are three wholly un­for­get­table scenes in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and the elec­tric show­down be­tween Fonny’s re­li­gious and snob­bish mother (Aun­janue El­lis) and Tish’s fam­ily is one of them. An­other is a stir­ringly haunt­ing mono­logue from Brian Tyree Henry, which un­for­tu­nately is re­ally his only sig­nif­i­cant scene in the film, and the third is Sharon’s heart­break­ing talk with Fonny’s ac­cuser. All are well-worth the price of ad­mis­sion.

Not ev­ery­thing works to­tally; in be­tween these barn­burn­ers, there is a lot of sleepy down­time (still gor­geously shot and scored) and a few mo­ments that just don’t quite work the way they prob­a­bly should, such as Dave Franco as an em­pa­thetic Jewish land­lord who just loves love.

The film plays more like a free verse poem than a tra­di­tional nar­ra­tive, jump­ing back and forth be­tween mo­ments chron­i­cling the ori­gins of Tish and Fonny’s re­la­tion­ship, and Tish’s strug­gle to prove Fonny’s in­no­cence in the present.

Jenk­ins and cin­e­matog­ra­pher James Lax­ton (“Moon­light”) use close-ups and straight-on shots of his ac­tors look­ing right into the cam­era as though they were speak­ing to the au­di­ence. It’s star­tlingly im­pact­ful and bold, like the per­fectly bright clothes cos­tumer Caro­line Eselin has cho­sen to help flesh out this world and its char­ac­ters. Does any­one use col­ors as well as Jenk­ins does? Whether it’s a red leather booth or a yel­low coat, ev­ery­thing in his frame is there for a rea­son, and every shot is like its own beau­ti­ful paint­ing come to life.

The whole pro­duc­tion makes the film a trans­port­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, heady and in­tox­i­cat­ing, but per­haps the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent in bring­ing it all to­gether is Ni­cholas Britell’s el­e­gantly sub­tle and heart-rend­ing score.

“Moon­light” is a hard act to fol­low, and although “Beale Street” might not quite reach the heights of Jenk­ins’ in­stant clas­sic of a best pic­ture-win­ner, it is its own kind of mar­vel, lovely, tran­scen­dent, heart­break­ing and as smooth as its jazzy sound­track.

COUR­TESY OF AN­NA­PURNA PIC­TURES

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in a scene from “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

COUR­TESY OF AN­NA­PURNA PIC­TURES

Regina King in a scene from “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

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