In 1970’s Harlem, two young lovers lives are thrown into turmoil when Fonny (Stephan James) is accused of rape. Tish (KiKi Lane) and her family try to prove his innocence whilst he awaits trial and she is pregnant with his child.
Barry Jenkins follow up to his Best Picture winning Moonlight is another stunningly intimate film. Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name it opens with a quote from the author about how Beale Street is both a real place (in New Orleans) and a figurative place that represents the home of every black person. The tender love story portrayed is universal whilst the underlying commentary on the prejudices black people face and how flaws in the criminal justice system exacerbate them are very much unique to minority groups.
The story structure is non linear. With KiKi Lane’s Tish narrating flashbacks and telling us the story of their falling in love whilst their attempts at clearing Fonny’s name continue. Lane’s performance is extraordinary. A relative newcomer in her debut feature film she dominates every scene she is in and ably portrays fragility and hope. The rest of the cast is not far behind her standard either. Stephan James is equally naturalistic as Fonny, Regina King is powerful and proud as Tish’s mother and Brian Tyree Henry delivers another exceptional supporting role as an old friend of Fonny who opens up to him about the horror of prison life.
Technically there are some great things to discuss. Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton have made a bold choice by having a large number of shots where the actors are looking directly at camera. Something that is usually avoided at all costs because it puts the audience ill at ease. Here, very much thanks to the expressive faces of the cast it works incredibly well at increasing the intimate nature of the film. There are other moments when the camera seemingly probes around our young lovers as if trying to investigate them, it reminded me of Terence Malick’s camerawork in his films. And the score from Nicholas Britell is just exquisite.
The only possible negative would be that this, as with Moonlight is a slow burn. But that is the point. Jenkins wants us to take the time to understand what these characters are living through. And Beale Street is all the more powerful for it. Genuinely beautiful film making.