If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (KiKi Layne) as they fall in love and start towards building a life together. Everything changes when Fonny is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. With a child on the way Tish, her parents and Fonny’s father do everything they can do reunite the couple.
Barry Jenkins, director of the utterly fantastic Moonlight, returns two years later with his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. The story follows the love, loss and longing of Fonny and Tish as they navigate their way through the trials and tribulations of 1970s Harlem. Moonlight felt like a watershed moment in some respects, it was a familiar story but also it wasn’t really like anything I had ever seen before. If Beale Street Could Talk is no less important or relevant than Moonlight but it is perhaps more of a shift towards mainstream cinema.
The relationship between Fonny and Tish is the heart and soul of the film, they’ve known each other all of their lives and we see it slowly transform into love. The two of them are perfectly cast and play off each other beautifully and it’s utterly devastating when they’re separated. The romance between the two felt like it was handled with a delicate touch, letting things breathe rather than forcing things.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that at times utterly spellbinding and beautiful, but it also tackles some incredibly weighty issues. The characters feel like living, breathing people not just inventions for the screen, I empathised with them at every step of their journey. I think that part of the reason for this is that they are real people and not idealised versions. Nobody in the story is perfect but there’s no denying the injustice of it all.
Despite being set in America in the 1970s the story is very relevant today. It feels like an important film but also not one that has the artificial self-importance of a film like this. I’m still amazed that this didn’t even get a nomination for Best Director or Best Picture, for some reason it was incredibly overlooked at the Oscars. I’m not sure whether that is because while it tackles a really important subject it never feels like something that is sermonising.
While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Moonlight (which is no real criticism, not much does) it’s still a wonderfully made, acted and realised film.