DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor—When a film wins as much popular and critical acclaim as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight did following its release, the next work is inevitably going to be hotly anticipated. Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight turned out to be an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, released in theaters last year and screened by DFS this past weekend.
Does the film live up to Moonlight? While I didn’t find myself as invested in Beale Street, neither when seeing it during its theatrical run or revisiting it at the DFS showing, it’s still quite an impressive work, with a formalistic style that continues to show Jenkins’ distinctive eye behind the camera.
Set in the New York City of the bygone 1970s, Beale Street is a love story focusing primarily on Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), and the trials the pair face over the course of their tragic romance; Fonny is framed by an antagonistic beat cop for a rape he didn’t commit, and shortly after her lover’s imprisonment Tish discovers she’s pregnant. As such, the drive of the film is naturally a desire to prove Fonny’s innocence, but the film resists telling the story in such a straightforward manner.
The narrative employs a non-chronological, vignette-like structure, flashing between scenes from Tish and Fonnie’s courtship to the grim present they now face; the overall effect when watching the film is a memory-like sensation, like that of recalling better days. This structure also allows for the supporting cast to all put in brief but memorable appearances; some of these supporting players include Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Dave Franco and perhaps most memorably, Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s recently paroled friend Daniel.
This isn’t to discount the strong lead work of Layne and James’, however. A recurring visual motif, that of cuts between centered close-ups of Tish and Fonny, seeming to stare at us but in truth at each other, perfectly encapsulates the shape the pair’s relationship: forever longing for each other in spite of circumstances outside their control separating them. The beautifully melancholic score underlying the imagery only bolsters the sense of longing.
Generally speaking, Beale Street isn’t as raw a film as Moonlight, and so I wasn’t quite as emotionally invested. One area the film is arguably even sharper than Moonlight is its political consciousness, which is no small feat.
Despite the story’s 1970s setting, which Jenkins meticulously recreates, this story about America’s often backwards-named justice system resonates just as strongly today as when James Baldwin puts his words to page nearly 50 years ago.
The final scene consists of Tish visiting Lonnie in prison with their son in tow; this already heartstring-pulling sight is followed by Samuel Francis Smith’s anthem “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” playing over the film’s title card and then credits, escalating the story’s tragedy with dark, bitter irony.