If Beale Street Could Talk fills, and sometimes overwhelms, the heart

A Harlem woman scrambles to prove her fiancé’s innocence while carrying their first child in this drama from Oscar-winning Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins, based on the novel by James Baldwin.

Fresh off an Academy Award win for Regina King’s supporting performance, the film opens in New Zealand cinemas this Thursday (March 7). Flicks critic Aaron Yap explains what makes the film such a stirring, compassionate, beautiful experience.

Every bit as quietly rapturous as his breakthrough 2016 Oscar champ Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ follow-up adapts James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk into a stirring, compassionate, beautifully performed expression of communal struggle in 1970s Harlem. It’s told via the quotidian framework of a budding romance between two childhood friends—19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James)—that’s derailed when a false rape accusation lands Fonny in prison.

“The game is rigged,” Tish ruminates in her wise, plainspoken voice-over, devastatingly aware, as the couple are expecting a child, that the cards have been stacked against them since birth. But amid the dehumanising social injustices, pockets of humour, hope and tenderness endure, and it’s this layered emotional palette that Jenkins colours the black experience with. It’s a work powered by a resilient, humane glow that complements the courage and ache of its source prose.

While looser in construction than Moonlight—it’s more prone to temporal and tonal hopping—Beale Street never loses sight of its dramatic throughline, with Jenkins navigating spaces of intimacy, memory, family and adversity with a profoundly empathetic eye. For a film with the indelible effects of racial oppression coursing through its veins, it doesn’t feel shackled.

The formal elegance on display fills, and sometimes overwhelms, the heart. The lush bursts of Sirkian colour. James Laxton’s gorgeous camerawork, rhapsodic in its celebration of black portraiture. Nicholas Britell’s sublime score, swooning to the lovebirds, steeped in a time and place. Jenkins imbues the text’s polemic contours with the richly pulsating sensations of a life not upended by pain and hardship, but strengthened by the will to adapt and overcome.