With the his opus, Moonlight, Barry Jenkins created a once-in-a-lifetime film. Jenkins arrived at the Toronto Film Festival this week with more-than-worthy follow-up in tow, his adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.
Over the next few months, there will be other films brought up — probably several of them. But pay them no mind. If you weren’t convinced by Moonlight, take notes now — Barry Jenkins is one of the best filmmakers of our time and If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the — if not the best — film of the year.
With If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has put together a beautiful, yet tragic, lush love story. Despite the story taking place decades before now, the story told here is just as topical as any other politically-tinged film or television project out right now.
The film, like the novel is the love story of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) as Tish and her family race against the clock to gather evidence to free Fonny from prison after he’s falsely accused of rape.
Handled exquisitely with grace, much of the format of Baldwin’s novel is retained, intertwining the present day situation of Fonny in prison with the story of how he and Tish fell in love — a love that is kind, soft, gentle — and most specifically — black.
Jenkins assembled an all-star cast, from relative newcomer Layne in a her solid, first-time film debut and the Canadian-bred James in his best, most powerful role to-date. Regina King is a tour de force as Tish’s mother, Sharon, and is totally heartbreaking when she heads to Puerto Rico in an effort to clear Fonny’s name. Colman Domingo is perfect as her foil, a father wanting to help and protect his daughter.
There are also scene-stealing moments from supporting players Teyonah Parris and Brian Tyree Henry, with the former playing Tish’s fiery, overprotective older sister, and the later playing an old friend of Fonny’s who has just been released from jail. In those two characters, a representation of two types of love and intimacy that aren’t romantic in nature.
The most powerful scenes in If Beale Street Could Talk are the films with less dialogue, a technique Jenkins utilized in Moonlight. If the colors blue and purple served as the backdrop for moonlight, the lush variations of red and green serve this purpose for the equally as colorful Beale. Not to mention, the score by Nicholas Brittell, creeping behind the scenes, is the perfect accompaniment for this story.
It’s rare that we see, on-screen, the sheer power of black love. If Beale Street Could Talk does just that, while also showing what we as black people have to grapple with in society.
The film has also accomplished something else: keeping us on our toes, for however long it may be, waiting for Jenkins’ next move.