Barry Jenkins Follows "Moonlight" With Radiant "Beale Street"

The cellos at the forefront of Nicholas Britell’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” score are more compelling than the entirety of most films. What happens when cues like “Eden (Harlem)” and “Agape” accompany a great film? One of the most revitalizing moviegoing experiences of 2018.

Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins’ talent for matching text to image to sound continues to blossom in real time here. The Florida native adapts James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name with a literary flair that would’ve made the late author and social critic proud. Set in the early 1970s, “Beale Street” tells the story of a young black couple falling in love and then being torn apart by prejudice, both individual and systemic. It is a gorgeous, excruciating movie.

Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) are Harlem natives and lifelong friends who’ve only recently begun to entertain the notion of a different kind of love between them. Jenkins’s primary colors and doting camera set the stage stunningly, the initial courtship between Fonny and Tish at once heightened and lived-in. We’re in their corner from word one, bracing for the cruel injustices certain to come their way.

The non-linear nature of the narrative might’ve thrown a lesser filmmaker for a loop. But Jenkins makes it an enormous asset, meting out Baldwin’s story with precision.

The beginning of the end for our leads – or more aptly the end of the beginning – arrives quickly. It isn’t long before we learn Fonny has been accused of a rape he didn’t commit. Tish visits him in prison to deliver some big news. She’s pregnant. Separated by glass they quietly rejoice, with Tish soon nervously off to inform her mother Sharon (Regina King) and father Joseph (Colman Domingo).

Telling her own family proves a walk in Central Park compared to telling Fonny’s. As the two households converge on the Rivers’ and news of the pregnancy gets out, Fonny’s cruel, Bible-thumping mother Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis) and her daughters make a scene for the ages. Only Fonny’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) wages a defense of the Rivers, albeit culminating in a fit of violence against his wife.

A scene-stealing cameo by Brian Tyree Henry as a friend of Fonny’s notwithstanding, “Beale Street” is the rare ensemble piece whose parts work in near-perfect unison. King’s understated turn is a career highlight; her relatively fleeting screen time leaves us wanting more. Meanwhile, James commands the screen with the composure of a veteran leading man and Layne comes off as one of the year’s great discoveries. A love scene between Fonny and Tish is one of the most evocative and tender in memory, and arguably the film’s centerpiece.

That the entire cast is on Jenkins’ wavelength throughout – that wavelength being an idyllic blend of modernism and naturalism – doesn’t just elevate a mostly straightforward love story into high art. It answers one of the big questions raised by Best Picture-winner “Moonlight.” It assures us that Jenkins is no one-hit wonder. He’s a born filmmaker, one with a rare pulse on what it is to be human.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 30, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Stephan James, KiKi Layne, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Finn Wittrock, Emily Rios, Ed Skrein
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)