Barry Jenkins’ characters glow. That’s really the only way to describe them, so radiant and redolent and inviting that you can’t help but fall in love. Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton (who also shot Moonlight) are the most sensual filmmaking team working, and in If Beale Street Could Talk, they’ve created more visual comfort food, the optical equivalent of Sam Cooke’s voice, or Mahershala Ali’s laugh — a booming, soulful thing that you just want to wrap yourself in like a winter coat. Beale Street is the black Brooklyn, a heartfelt elegy to our most recent ancestors, a kind of collective home movie of black Americana. It’s a masterpiece.
Beale Street isn’t quite as easy as Brooklyn, where the main antagonist was homesickness and feeling unstuck in the world, which is only fitting for a film about the black experience in America. Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin (the title is a reference to an old blues song), profiled in 2016’s unforgettable I Am Not Your Negro, Beale Street tells the story of 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends and young lovers who find out Tish is pregnant right about the time Fonny gets accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.
Layne’s acting is a little distracting at first, broad and overly bashful and a little slow, like she’s playing the ingenue in a Disney musical. But eventually you settle in, partly thanks to her excellent, plainspoken voiceovers, and partly because Beale Street kind of is a musical. It’s not obvious at first because no one’s singing, but the acting is just a little behind the beat, and eventually you fall into the groove — a kind of mellow, syrupy revery, like the blues song the film is named after.
There’s a masterpiece of an ensemble scene, a house party at Tish’s house featuring Fonny’s family — her gregarious father, Frank (Michael Beach), Bible-thumping battle axe mom played by Aunjanue Ellis, and two sisters — “celebrating” with Tish’s — her mother played by Regina King, sister (Teyonah Harris), and father played by Colman Domingo, another guy with a laugh so soothing you can practically slow dance to it.