Greetings again from the darkness. Humiliation and disgust register when we acknowledge that James Baldwin’s 1974 book is as relevant today as it was when published. Though the book hardly lends itself to a big screen presentation, writer-director Barry Jenkins (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for last year’s Best Picture winner MOONLIGHT) brings his cinematic artistry and deft touch to a story that is a touching love story wrapped in a tale of social injustice.
Filmmaker Jenkins has succeeded in delivering the rare film that is filled with both tender, warm, smile-inducing moments and moments of absolute frustration that fill us with outrage. It’s a beautiful film with a sweet story of love between two soul mates, and it’s also a story of race, class, and Harlem in the 70’s. The film begins with a Baldwin quote informing us that “Beale Street” is born from black roots – it’s not geographical, but rather cultural. He’s certainly not referring to today’s tourist destination in Memphis.
Tish (terrific newcomer Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James, played Jesse Owens in RACE) have been best friends since early childhood. They are now ages 19 and 22 respectively, and that friendship has blossomed into romantic attraction. Their fairy tale love story is shattered when a racist cop (Ed Skrein) falsely accuses Fonny of rape, and Fonny goes to prison. And if that’s not enough, we witness the scene where Tish and her family invite Fonny’s family over to announce she is carrying his baby. Fonny’s judgmental and religious zealot of a mother reacts with indignation and is beyond cruel to Tish. It’s one of the most emotionally explosive scenes of any movie all year. Regina King gives a powerhouse performance as Tish’s mom, and she goes toe-to-toe with Fonny’s mom played by Aunjunae Ellis (Yula Mae from THE HELP). Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach, AQUAMAN) and Tish’s dad (Colman Domingo, SELMA) are stunned by the situation, and wisely take their discussions to the corner bar.
That incredible scene of families clashing is offset by the tenderness and soulfulness of the scenes showing Fonny and Tish together … whether on the neighborhood streets, in their apartment, or talking with a glass barrier between them. As the timeline gets bounced around, we see Fonny and his old buddy Daniel (Byron Tyree Henry) in one exceptional scene, and we also see the bond between Fonny and his café manager friend played by Diego Luna. The depth of these scenes is difficult to relay, and the film acts as both a character study and social commentary relevant to today’s issues. There is so much precision and attention to detail in the story-telling and acting. The color palettes transition depending on the mood of the scene, as does the music – the strings used by composer Nicholas Britell are very much a part of the Tish-Fonny love story, and the brassy jazz music cover the rest.
We get to know Fonny as an artist and charming young man smitten with Tish, who is a gentle and angelic soul. We see his changes while in prison, and we see how others react to her (based on their race, gender and age) as she works the perfume counter at a department story. Baldwin’s writing is spot on as Tish (in her role as narrator) says “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
Director Jenkins has delivered a special movie that is brilliantly constructed. It’s a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. Cinematographer James Laxton expertly captures the tone changes, and having the actors periodically look directly into the camera (at the viewer) proves quite powerful. This is romanticism vs. reality, and speaks to the power and beauty of love … and the strength to carry through even in an unjust situation brought on by a fractured society. It’s a beautiful film.