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Love Reigns Supreme on 'Beale Street'

Kiki Layne and Stephan James settle in as Tish and Fonny in Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk." (Annapurna Pictures)

Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker of eloquent silences, meaningful encounters and poetic dialogue. Like his first two films, “Medicine for Melancholy” and “Moonlight,” Jenkins’ third, the stirring melodrama “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is a tender romance. Also like them, it shows how love, in all these cases black love, takes root in inhospitable soil.

Despite the Memphis place name, “Beale Street” (which takes its title from a lyric in “Beale Street Blues”) is set in Manhattan in the early 1970s and based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin.

Its narrator is Tish (KiKi Layne), 19, inseparable from Fonny (Stephan James), 22. Once childhood friends, they have matured along with their relationship. Jenkins’ camera soars above them as they walk along the Hudson. It’s as if they are kissing the joy as it flies—and are borne by it.

The film travels back and forth between two time frames. There is before and after, before Fonny is accused (falsely) of raping a woman and after he is jailed, awaiting trial. In the before, every color is vivid; in the after, colors seem desaturated. The contrast between their uninhibited love and the restraints of jail is acute. “I hope nobody has to look at anybody they love through glass,” says Trish ruefully, referring to the sheet glass that separates the lovers in the jail. Although their bond will be even further tested, it is powerful. And not only because Tish is pregnant.

The news brings joy and laughter to Fonny, who by this time is in jail awaiting trial, and to Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) and sister. It would be understatement to say Fonny’s mother and sisters are less than thrilled by Tish’s pregnancy.

This reaction would knock the wind out of most pregnant teens. But the resourceful Tish is not one of those. She is her mother’s daughter. And her mother, Sharon, has a spine stronger than titanium and a heart bigger than Harlem. (Good lord, is King fierce and supportive as Sharon.)

What I loved best about the movie is how Jenkins, who adapted the Baldwin novel as well as directing it, makes it clear where Tish gets her indomitable strength. Sharon tells her daughter to remember that “Love brought you here. If you trusted love this far, don’t panic now.”

Jenkins doesn’t characterize his lovers as pregnant girl and an incarcerated man who are victims of a racist system, but as a couple who hold onto their dreams despite everything. This, even if it means that at her department-store job Tish smiles until her back teeth hurt because her salary will support Fonny’s release and her unborn child. This, even if it means that Fonny, a woodworker and sculptor, survives by imagining the family table he will make when he is released.

By the end, “Beale Street” reveals itself as a movie focused equally on those moments of grace that lift the spirit in the face of injustice as it is on the injustice itself. And in those moments of a mother’s love, a lover’s pride in the beloved, a child linking hands with his parents and saying grace before eating, Jenkins gets to the pith and marrow of love and life.

Carrie Rickey
Contributor
In addition to writing film reviews and essays for Truthdig, Carrie Rickey has been a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Village Voice and an art critic at Artforum and Art in America. Rickey has…
Carrie Rickey

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