One of the most rapturously beautiful movies I have ever seen, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” centers on not what its characters go through, though they do go through quite a lot, but on the love between the two leads, which is the driving force and thematic through-line of the whole film.
Starring Stephen James as Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt and Kiki Layne as Tish Rivers, the movie tracks the relationship between two black childhood friends in 1970s Harlem as they realize their deep romantic feelings for each other as adults. Adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same name, we follow the two 20-somethings in a chronologically scattered narrative as they fall in love, and in the legal process that follows when Fonny is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. There would still be a strong plot without all the gorgeous shots of the two lovers looking longingly at each other or strolling down the strikingly lit streets of New York City, but those are the scenes one remembers best from the film, and that make the greatest impression.
There are some brilliant dialogue-driven scenes, like when the two families gather after Rivers realizes that she is pregnant with Hunt’s baby, only after he has been arrested. The tension between the two mothers and between the two sisters is palpable and leads to some great lines delivered by Sharon (Regina King) and Ernestine (Tayonah Parris) as Rivers’ mother and sister, respectively.
Speaking of the supporting cast, the characters that flesh out the narrative are able to externalize what the two leads often convey through meaningful looks and quiet interactions. Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) is heartbreaking in a single scene as Hunt’s buddy who just got out of prison, while King is devastating to watch as we follow her when she travels to Puerto Rico to confront the woman who made the claim that sent Hunt to jail. While she was only in one scene and was not given very much to do, Emily Rios’ Victoria does a lot with little in her role as the victim of the horrible crime that was definitely committed — just not by Hunt. The two women convey in their fraught but brief interaction the horrible effects of white supremacy on various marginalized communities and identities.
The film delves into ideas of a universal black experience, what it means to be an ally and black love, without sugarcoating the harsh reality of what the characters have to deal with. The film ends with a heartbreaking final shot that keeps hope alive in the form of the love between the two protagonists, but one wonders if it is enough to sustain them in a world rife with such injustice.
I highly recommend this film. It is just as aesthetically beautiful, if not more so, as “Moonlight,” which was also directed by Barry Jenkins. The overall impact of the story when it was over left me overwhelmed and in tears.