“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” These words open If Beale Street Could Talk, with every syllable coated in aching, anguished sadness. Since the dawn of theater, a thousand tragedies have struck a thousand characters with the burden of inevitability, whether that be in the form of prayers that can’t be answered or simple truths that can’t be believed. This film does that, but it also carefully unveils a deeply touching love story that must withstand both cruel injustice and casual ignorance. Beale Street has the warmth of poetry, mixed with raw, heart-wrenching reality.
Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel, this story centers on a romance between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). The two grew up together in Harlem before slowly realizing their feelings for one another. They pick a place to live and get engaged, but their plans get dynamited when Fonny is railroaded for a rape he didn’t commit. He clogs his way through a congested court system when Tish discovers she is pregnant. This sets up a molten confrontation between Tish’s grounded family, who offer unconditional support, and Fonny’s pious, parochial relatives, who peg her as a corrupting harlot. Now, Tish and her mother (Regina King) race to prove Fonny’s innocence while preparing to bring a baby into the world.
The script, by director Barry Jenkins, deftly cuts between two stark storylines: The past, where we see the ebullient bounce of Tish and Fonny’s initial courtship, and the present, where Tish watches Fonny wither behind bars. It’s a testament to the filmmakers and actors that these scenes interchange without the usual cinematic gimmickry. Jenkins engages in a few visual flourishes, but he mostly makes the wise move of stepping back and giving his actors the space to act.
From top to bottom, those performances are all top-notch. The biggest revelation lies in the chemistry of Layne and James: The love of their characters burns white in the flashbacks, and simmers throughout the difficult scenes in prison. Any love that endures must also evolve, and these two actors convey subtle notes of passion, patience, and muted frustration with perfect pitch. King is absolutely incredible as the mother who champions the cause of her children with reckless abandon.
“Love conquers all,” has lived long enough to become cliche, but every cliche must have at least some truth to it. For the characters in Beale Street, love doesn’t so much conquer all as it supplies the strength to sustain and survive, even through a wall of prison glass. It’s a good thing I didn’t finish my list of top films for 2018. This one just made the list.