Moonlight felt like the film of a lifetime. For director/cowriter Barry Jenkins, it must’ve been a remarkable blessing but also potentially a curse: tell a hugely personal story, win a bunch of awards, become revered and beloved, and then hear everyone ask, “What else you got?”
In art, it’s always about what’s next. It’s only in death that one- or even two-hit wonders are absolved for their brief yet transformative accomplishments. When you’re alive, especially if you’re in your prime, we want—need—to see what’s left in your tank. Fortunately, though it could never fully live up to its predecessor, If Beale Street Could Talk proves to be another heart-wrenching production from a world-class artist.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are a young couple in 1970s Harlem, former best friends who came together in a passionate slow burn of a romance. Soon after they commit to each other, Fonny is accused of rape by a vengeful cop (Ed Skrein) and thrown into prison. And just as quickly after that, Tish tells Fonny and their families that she’s pregnant. While Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) struggle to untangle the legal web surrounding Fonny’s charges, we’re treated to flashbacks that depict how the two lovers came together and the events that ultimately forced them apart.
Based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, Beale Street features several of what are already becoming Jenkins’s trademarks, including sharply framed closeups. He loves capturing actors alone in a shot, often without speaking or moving, as if they’re—at that moment—the only person in the world. This is perfect for every scene where Tish visits Fonny in prison; we see each side of the conversation, turn by turn, and both performers are masterful in their abilities to convey the wild range of emotions that make up Beale Street’s brilliant backbone.
My one regret, if that’s even the right word, lies in how the film peaks so early. The sparks that fly when Tish’s and Fonny’s parents meet are absolutely electric, establishing the difficulties he faced growing up and the love that emanates from her home. It’s the perfect canvas for not only King to defend her child but Colman Domingo and Michael Beach—as the two fathers—to let their characters’ personalities shine through in ways both loud and subtle. As Tish’s father, Domingo offers nothing but steadfast commitment to his daughter; meanwhile, though Beach is certainly more reasonable than his harsh wife (Aunjanue Ellis) he also backhands her at the first sign of insolence and storms out to start drinking. It’s a sign of the strain this child will be born under, but also the strain of being black in an America that has no time or patience for you whatsoever. Under those circumstances, through what else but love can you find patience for each other?
I’ll also say that the overwhelming praise for King’s performance strikes me as odd; she’s great but doesn’t have enough substantial moments to stand out. The real masterwork is done by James and especially Layne; he conveys the nightmare that is prison through just facial expressions and tone, without us ever seeing beyond the visiting room, and she is the rock that the whole movie rests upon. Tish is quiet and contemplative but also incredibly strong; she doesn’t openly wear the burden of being black like Fonny but still understands the inevitability of the trials the world is laying at her feet. This is all Layne, and its remarkable work for a 26-year-old in her first feature film.
Again, the pressure to follow up a film like Moonlight must be staggering. There are true cinematic freaks like the Coen brothers out there, who have an endless fountain of ideas and turn everything they touch into gold, but they’re the exception. I never really doubted Jenkins’s genius, but it was still a treat to see a filmmaker who isn’t weighed down by the pressure of following up a modern American masterpiece. Quite the opposite here actually; he thrives.