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Senior Citizen Kane Club: If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins

Following the achingly beautiful Oscar-winner Moonlight, the expectations were high for Barry Jenkins’ next project. Surrounding himself with many of the same creative collaborators and choosing source material perfectly aligned to his talents and concerns, he has knocked it out of the park yet again. If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the novel by James Baldwin, is a fiercely poetic film about love, inequality, and survival.

"...a fiercely poetic film about love, inequality, and survival." 

Newcomer KiKi Layne plays Tish, a 19-year-old living in Harlem in the early 1970s who is hopelessly in love with boyfriend Fonny (Race’s Stephan James), a 22-year-old sculptor she has known since her childhood. They’re excited about getting married until he is arrested, charged with raping a Puerto Rican woman. Tish knows he didn’t do it, but she has another bombshell for him while he’s behind bars awaiting trial: she is pregnant. Following multiple characters, flashing back and forth from the present to the beginning of the couple’s relationship, we gradually learn more about their lives, their families, their neighbourhood and the way racial inequality, both subtle and overt, has led directly and indirectly to the devastating situation the couple find themselves in.

Layne and James are heartbreaking as a young couple torn apart, but the film comes truly alive with the cast of characters which flesh out their world (Atlanta’s Bryan Tyree Henry in particular is a standout in a tiny role). Cinematographer James Laxton gives us a 1970 Harlem that feels both authentic and dreamlike, with his moving camera gracefully articulating the characters’ feelings, while Nicholas Britell’s lush score echoes a range of moods, from bliss to rage. Jenkins has done Baldwin’s words justice, managing to craft a film which has an intimate love story at its core but is also a sweeping commentary on the systematic racism which is part of African-American life.