‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ speaks in the silences

Brian Lang

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Stephan James and KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

In a competitive year at the Academy Awards, several movies seem to be a shoo-in for nominations. Barry Jenkins’s newest film “If Beale Street Could Talk” is sure to win some awards this spring.

Jenkins, known for his award-winning film “Moonlight” (the same “Moonlight” that was at the center of the wild Oscars mix up a few years ago), returns to the cultural sphere with his new film based on Jame’s Baldwin’s classic 1974 novel of the same name.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” revolves around two families living in 1970’s Harlem, both united and estranged by their children. Quiet artist Alonzo, lovingly called “Fonny” (Stephan James), and his fiancé and childhood best friend Tish ( Kiki Layne) are expecting a baby. When Fonny is imprisoned on charges of rape, the couple’s bonds are stretched to their breaking point and the flawed justice system is pulled into sharp relief. Through it all, Tish carries on, determined for justice and the drive to be reunited with her love.

“Beale Street” is a quiet, pensive film that’s okay with not being everyone’s cup of tea. The storyline jumps back and forth through flashbacks, juxtaposing the young couple’s blooming love with their forced separation in a moving and effective way. It’s a powerful story of first love and justice that feels surprisingly modern and relevant today.

Visually, “Beale Street” is a masterpiece. Once again, Jenkins uses bright, saturated colors as tacit characters. Vibrant yellows, blues, and greens glow throughout the film, symbolizing Tish, Fonny and their love for each other. The film is infused with a warm hue that makes it feel like a distant memory. It’s as if the sharp, hard edges of the story have been softened and worn away with time, leaving a peaceful memory behind.

Jenkins finds beauty in the little moments, focusing on a bright red umbrella or a cloud of blue cigarette smoke. He zooms in on the protagonists’ faces, their eyes filling the screen with complex emotion. The audience feels as close and intimate with the couple as Tish and Fonny must feel with each other, making the emotional connection to the film only stronger. While the dialogue of this film is fantastic, the story is better told in the silences.

Regina King shines in a highly buzzed about role as Tish’s mother Sharon. King acts with a fiery passion and her character’s maternal love will make your heart ache. She’s a sure contender for Best Actress at the Oscars this spring.

KiKi Layne is a vision in her feature film debut. Her voice-overs are heartfelt and honest and her acting feels genuine. Her steadfast love for Fonny and determination to see true justice carried out propels the film through its quiet moments and keeps the plot moving forward.

Her partner, is a well of quiet emotions. His eyes tell more than his speech and reflect Fonny’s love, patience, anger and bravery wordlessly. He’s seen mostly in flashbacks, but his presence is palpable even while imprisoned.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a movie made with love that centers around love itself. It’s overflowing with gorgeous visuals and a powerful story that cements Barry Jenkins into the pantheon of auteur directors (a director who is seen as the author of the movie). Don’t miss this wonderful, award-winning film.