Review: 'If Beale Street Could Talk' sings a song of raw beauty

Director Barry Jenkins' follow-up to "Moonlight" is a love story of uncommon grace

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
KiKi Layne (left) and Stephan James in "If Beale Street Could Talk."

An intoxicating, intimate work from a born filmmaker, "If Beale Street Could Talk" is an elegant poem of a film.   

"Moonlight's" Barry Jenkins directs this story of a couple dealing with racial strife in 1970s Harlem. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, "Beale Street" crackles with wit and insight into the way one's worldview — "the world you move in," in Baldwin's words — is shaped, and later reinforced, by their circumstances. 

Jenkins uses a slow pace and a soft touch, framing his characters in close ups that read like portraits, their faces telling the story more than the words. He uses his camera to stage floating overhead shots where he drops in on his characters from above, and he gives a dreamlike feel to a situation that is anything but dreamy.

Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up together and are now a young couple in love with a baby on the way. But matters are complicated when Fonny is tossed in jail for a crime he didn't commit, fingered by a racist cop with an ax to grind. With Fonny locked up, Tish is forced to raise the baby on her own, while working to exonerate Fonny. 

Jenkins plays with the story's timeline, shifting between past and present like he's shuffling puzzle pieces around a table. The film's most explosive scene comes when Tish and her parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent) sit down with Fonny's parents and sisters to share the baby news; words are wielded like knives in a street fight, and no one leaves unscathed. 

Composer Nicholas Britell, Oscar nominated for his "Moonlight" score, plays an elemental role here; his score lifts the film and it makes it swell with deep pools of raw human emotion. "If Beale Street Could Talk" is a love story of uncommon beauty, and Jenkins brings it all to vivid life.


'If Beale Street Could Talk'


Rated R for language and some sexual content

Running time: 119 minutes