If Beale Street Could Talk is only director Barry Jenkins’ third feature, but it’s already his second true masterpiece, after the astounding 2016 film Moonlight. This movie’s based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, and tells the story of Tish, a 19-year-old pregnant woman in Harlem, and Fonny, her boyfriend who’s been jailed for a sexual assault he clearly didn’t commit.
Jenkins tells Baldwin’s story mostly through Tish’s eyes, though we do take tiny detours with her father and mother as they work, in their own ways, to support her, Fonny, and the new life that’s about to come into the world.
Jenkins has an extraordinary ability to tell a story that’s both universal and specific—we see Tish, Fonny, and their families living their lives, working to love each other, with their modest hopes and dreams, and we can all easily see ourselves reflected. But this is also a story that’s very particular to the black experience in this country: its struggles and injustices, its aspirations, its distinct rhythms and nuances. It’s a story that’s vibrant and filled with life, but that breaks our hearts in slow motion—we know where we’re headed, and we know this is a story that continues to be written the same way every single day in America.
I have a hard time thinking of a more elegant filmmaker than Barry Jenkins, with his floating camera and emotionally penetrating, perfectly composed close-ups; his lush colors and music that carries us along through every scene—it’s all so tightly controlled, and yet feels entirely natural and real. Every moment is truly alive.
If Beale Street Could Talk is stunning, but not showy — it gives us real life on a human scale, and confronts us with difficult truths while maintaining a quietly painful optimism. This is one of the most vital films in years, and a movie that should be seen.