Fledgling director Barry Jenkins took the world by storm with his 2016 masterpiece Moonlight, winning the best picture Oscar of that year. Now after two years he has released his highly-anticipated follow-up: If Beale Street Could Talk. In Moonlight, though centered in Florida, Jenkins organically introduces a story that gives viewers an insight into the African-American experience in many areas around the states. With his new film, Jenkins zeroes in on the flawed prison system by adapting James Baldwin’s famous novel of the same name.
The storyline follows Tish, a pregnant girl whose father has been incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. Half of the film takes place in present day and deals with various struggles revolving around the newfound pregnancy, while the other half is told in flashback, and shows Tish and Fonny’s blossoming relationship before it all went wrong. Jenkins structures the story perfectly, with each flashback sequence giving context to the subsequent present-day scenes they accompany. Knowing what is to come during the flashback scenes adds a sense of dread, but does not stop each scene from displaying the chemistry of actors Stephen James and Regina King beautifully.
Like he does in Moonlight, Jenkins shines light on new actors who haven’t yet gotten their share of the limelight by giving each and every role breathing room to become their own important character. Smaller characters such as Fonny’s friend (Brian Tyree Henry of Atlanta) who is still scarred from his time in prison and from the evil that reared its head from the white prosecutors make up important pieces of the puzzle that Jenkins assembles.His style of direction often involves extreme close-ups of the actors’ faces, which means there can be no false move from the actors. Luckily, Jenkins picks performers who can hold up their end of the bargain; especially Stephen James, who shines as the main character who slowly realizes how hopeless his situation is as the film goes on.
Even though If Beale Street Could Talk is based on a novel, the film unfolds like a stage play. One standout scene in particular exemplifies that, in which the family of Tish must confront Fonny’s family regarding the pregnancy. The blocking and writing are top-notch during this wildly uncomfortable and contentious scene. Every actor carries their part well including the miniscule characters, such as Tish’s sister, who makes quite an impact with every line delivered.
Many important themes permeate throughout this film, including the implication that religion may not be there to save everyone, the effect of grief on a victim of a tragic event, and, most importantly, the systematic problems with the American prison system. If Beale Street Could Talk may take place in the 1970s, but this problem is just as prevalent in today’s society, which is why Jenkins thought it right to release the movie decades later. What happens to Fonny is completely out of his control, and the movie, despite its themes of love and happiness near the beginning, slowly starts to exert a feeling of hopelessness. The white system leaves black people all across the country helpless to argue or complain about their place in society, which leaves too many people in situations where they must deal with the repercussions of an action they didn’t even have anything to do with just because of the color of their skin.
Jenkins is such a precise director that it is hard to find anything wrong with this film. He makes even the smallest moment feel magical and life-altering, such as a heartwarming father-daughter moment in which Tish is getting ill and her father must comfort her. Maybe one of the only flaws would be that the ending scene is anticlimactic and not particularly memorable, which leaves the movie on a forgettable note, but this pales in comparison to the overall message the film sends. If Beale Street Could Talk is an important film that examines race relations in America today via the broken prison system. The awards attention this film is getting is justified, though instead of constantly nominating Regina King, they should be nominating Stephen James. Jenkins proves that he is not a one-and-done filmmaker with his second tour-de-force in a row, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.