Barry Jenkins’ distinctive style shines as brightly as ever in his newest feature, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. Touching on issues of racism, mass incarceration, and housing discrimination, the film portrays the love story between Fonny and Tish, a young black couple living in Harlem in the 70s. Following Fonny being falsely accused of rape and his subsequent imprisonment, the pregnant Tish and her family attempt to free him, all against the backdrop of a legal system rigged to make them fail.
The film’s events are not presented chronologically – instead, details of the couple’s past life are revealed in successive flashbacks in parallel with the family’s ongoing attempts to prove Fonny’s innocence, as in Baldwin’s novel. These separate chapters are expertly woven together by Nicholas Britell’s excellent and widely-praised score, which lends drama to Jenkins’ abrupt shifts in tone. A tender love scene blends into a suspenseful example of racism in the legal system; an innocent walk in the park is brought crashing down by Tish’s opening line: “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
Jenkins’ signature style is firmly present in Beale Street, which, like Moonlight before it, forms a truly beautiful and pure love story out of hard-hitting social history. Those long, close-up shots where his protagonists gaze at each other via the camera are back and as powerful as ever, taking on an added significance when the audience knows there’s a prison window between Tish and Fonny. At the same time, the use of real archived footage of 70s Harlem brings an immediacy to the story; the film makes clear that when it comes to the issue of mass incarceration, America isn’t yet out of the woods.
Jenkins’ portrayal of intimacy remains sensitive and well-handled; in a love scene that has been praised by critics, the characters undress themselves rather than each other, lending the scene a refreshing agency. An honourable mention should also go to costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, who styles the characters in classic late 60s looks found in clothing recyclers, bringing to life the colours Baldwin depicted so vividly in his novel.
The Academy’s snubbing of Beale Street for Best Picture is brought into sharper relief by its winning Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, and then sharper by the Oscar ultimately going to Green Book. Regina King’s Oscar for Best Actress was of course well-deserved, with her role as Tish’s mother embodying a strength, support, and independence that is one of the most striking aspects of the film.
The true success of Beale Street is that at its core, it’s simply a beautiful love story. This very pure love, relatable and comprehensible to any viewer, gives the film a staying power that I think will become true of all Jenkins’ films.