If Beale Street Could Talk (2019) conveys its most powerful messages without using words

Coming off the back of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”, director Barry Jenkins returns to the big screen with his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk”. In 1970’s Harlem, Tish (Kiki Layne) is in love with a young sculptor, Fonny (Stephen James), the father of her unborn child. When Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, Tish and their families race to clear his name before the baby is born.

Bringing his trademark slow burn intensity to bear on Baldwin’s novel, Jenkins suffuses 1970s Harlem with an expressionistic almost dream-like ambience with a luxurious colour palate and long, lingering shots and signature tight close-ups on the faces of his characters, allowing the emotional weight of the movie to pour out through their eyes and into the audience’s souls.

Almost glacial in its pacing, yet spiked with moments of shocking intensity, there’s an undeniable mesmerism at work as the harsh realities of the African American experience unfold on screen. Yet despite the cruel inequity of institutionalised racism and systemic prejudice which has robbed generations of young African Americans of their freedoms and shattered the lives of their families and communities, there’s a defiant spark of seemingly impossible yet indefatigable hope, personified in Tish. KiKi Layne, making her feature debut, is astonishingly self-assured as young Tish, superficially fragile but resolute and resilient, hardening to withstand the ordeal she must go through. Regina King, likewaise, brings a quiet sense of power and vulnerability to the role of Tish’s mother, the matriarch trying to hold her family together in the face of injustice and indifferent authorities. The strength of the characters and the precarious nature of their lives is given profound expression through the performances of the wider cast too, with Stephan James and Colman Domingo lingering in the memory as well.

A poignant love story and a heartbreaking indictment of the prevailing culture of yesterday’s America – and a timely reminder to the America of today – despite the modern stylistic trappings of Jenkins’s direction and the beautiful cinematography, there’s something about the movie which feels a little old-fashioned. There’s a bleak inevitability to the way the story unfolds that feels on the brink of being archly worthy and ever-so-slightly Oscar-baity, especially when compared to recent movies which have tackled similar themes such as “Get Out” or even Jenkins’ own “Moonlight”. Even then, it’s still a stunning movie, masterfully performed by a uniformly excellent cast and worthy of attention.