If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight is a cert for most beautiful film of the year. It wafts along on a tide of shimmering imagery and soaring emotion, saturated colours, a lush score (with added Coltrane and Nina Simone) and poetic voice over.

The two leads, Kiki Layne and Stephan James, are gorgeous and the story throbs with love.

But, adapted, often verbatim, from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, the subject is tough. Racism, injustice and rape don’t sit well with beauty. There are rougher ways to tell this story than the kind of transcendent. impressionistic dreaminess Jenkins uses, even in prison.

Tish is so young and love-struck; Fonny is sincere but resigned. The fight comes from Tish’s Mom, played by Regina King in a performance like a snarling lioness protecting her cub.  It worked it’s spell on me – what will survive of us is love, said the poet, and that’s what you take away from this film rather than the violence or the racism or the poverty.

So I’m all for it. I loved the outfits, the colours, the sounds, the soul. Beale Street, by the way, was the black-populated entertainment district of Memphis, and Baldwin and Jenkins argue that it’s a state of mind, a locus of black experience that stretches to from jazz age New Orleans and the south to 70s Harlem and to 90s Miami, and to now. Jenkins could have set his film in the present. Did he need to? 

When the artistic choices are this strong, this personal, you simply have to go along with them and be swept on the tide of emotion, allowing the movie’s flow to carry you over the leaps of plot and into the stand out moments with which this style is more concerned.