Like Widows director Steve McQueen, If Beale Street Could Talk director Barry Jenkins last visited the New Orleans Film Festival with a film that would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture: Moonlight. Jenkins avoids the sophomore slump with If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same title.
The film jumps back and forth through time in early 1970s Harlem as it follows the relationship of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Tish becomes pregnant shortly before Fonny is arrested on a false accusation of rape. Tish and her family then try to clear Fonny of the charges before the baby is born.
Like Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk is a very episodic film. As a result, it does not have the smoothest pace and it drags in spots (also a flaw in Moonlight). But like Moonlight, Jenkins’ visual skills are on full display here. And most impressively, Jenkins strikes a delicate balance with the film’s tone. On the one hand, it’s message is a profoundly depressing one: that African-American men have been railroaded by the American criminal justice system for a very long time. On a broader level, the film’s message is also that sometimes, despite our best and most sincere efforts, we cannot save our loved ones from a terrible fate.
But despite the bleakness of the sentences I just typed, the movie never feels bleak. It never feels like an angry screed. Despite the sadness and pain in the film, it’s ultimately a hopeful tale about people holding on to each other for comfort as they soldier on in the face of tragedy and adversity. The movie’s warmth eventually wins you over.