Frost on Film: If Beale Street Could Talk

Another Oscar win?

Today, in large part due to Trump’s presidency, the topic of racial hatred seems as prevalent as ever. Films released recently like The Hate U Give or Spike Lee’s brilliant Blackkklansman have attempted to discuss this issue with a loud and angry voice. If Beale Street Could Talk continues this trend but in a more subtle, muted way, elevating intimacy over depictions of racial prejudice.

Based on the book of the same name by James Baldwin, the story traces Fonny and Tish, two lovers who have been friends since childhood. Their lives quickly get ripped apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, sending him to jail. When Tish soon realises that she is pregnant, her family struggles to ensure Fonny’s release.

A story this delicate with themes this important requires a high level of talent and guise behind the camera. Fortunately, director Barry Jenkins suits the bill perfectly, bringing the same eye to detail which he did to the masterwork Moonlight. The film opens with an intriguing birds eye view shot of the couple walking hand in hand as Tish narrates. Voiceover is utilised well throughout and is used sparingly, never becoming clunky or unnecessary.

From the first frame, the artistry of the movie is clear as the colour pallets change from scene to scene. One particular scene where a close up of a face is offset by cigarette smoke slowly wafting through the air is truly beautiful. Extreme care has been taken to ensure that every image on screen is perfect, placed there for a reason. Every close up reveals something, whether it be a glare, a glance or look of adoration, each moment tells us a little more about the characters on screen. This beautiful cinematography serves to elevate the love story at the heart of the film.

Yet, the performances of the protagonists are what truly cements the affinity of the central relationship. KiKi Layne is mesmerising as the quiet Tish, perfectly offsetting the louder but equally compassionate Fonny, played brilliantly by Stephan James. Their love feels real and their inseparability is almost a given, making their forced separation through Fonny’s imprisonment all the more heart-breaking.

At the start, there are quite a few dialogue heavy scenes which make the piece feel almost theatrical in its set up. This is no criticism in itself, but it does sometimes mean that scenes linger a bit. It must be said, If Beale Street Could Talk is not built around action like Blackkklansman was, but rather it establishes and portrays a romance in the context of an extremely bigoted America. Yet race isn’t the only issue Jenkins’ film deals with, as the threat of Tish’s baby being born a bastard seems almost too large for her own mother to handle.

Throughout all of this, the film remains poetically beautiful; subtle yet divisive. There is only one instance where we see a racist policeman confront the couple due to the colour of their skin. The scene is frustrating to watch but hits harder purely because we have gradually become invested in the central relationship.

Constant flashbacks show how Fonny and Tish became close and it is these moments which really drive the film. Whether it be an intimate scene in their apartment while rain spills from the sky outside or simply the pair looking for a new place, every moment makes their love seem more real. Barry Jenkins has previously spoken of his fascination with French cinema and his latest film has obviously been motivated by such works with their emotionally raw style. Jenkins cannot be commended enough for making a piece brimming with such sensational heft.

Yet when the focus returns to the present day with Fonny in prison, there isn’t quite the same level of intensity. This admittedly is a minor issue as the film remains beautiful and emotional throughout, serving as a worthy follow up to Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ previous picture. Like its predecessor, If Beale Street Could Talk has garnered Oscar worthy recognition. With a masterful love story as its centre, If Beale Street Could Talk is brilliant and could very well win this year’s Best Picture Oscar category.

Stefan Frost 



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