DRAMA; 1hr 59min
STARRING: Kiki Layne, Stephan James
Sweet fit: James and Layne
Even though it’s technically the street in New Orleans where jazz originated, the quote from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, on which filmmaker Barry Jenkins’s screenplay is based, sets a tone and theme of love and belonging. “Every black person in America was born on Beale Street,” it reads in part.
The story of these two black people takes place in New York’s Harlem in the early 1970s. Nineteen-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny (newcomer Layne and Selma’s James, transparently wholesome and wholehearted) are in love and expecting their first child. Their early romance is bathed in the buttery light of fable, but its later stages are a disaster with Fonny jailed for a rape he didn’t commit and a prejudicial justice system set fast against him.
Interlacing then and now, with elegiac finesse, Jenkins relives a rise and fall whose trajectory is as casually brutal as a roll of the dice. The mood he sets is almost prayerful, its warmly lit closeups and poignant score cradling the vivid characters like works of contemporary art. As in Moonlight, the director’s previous movie, Beale Street is unafraid to linger and to reflect—on the cut-and-dried brutality of snap judgments that rip lives apart, and on the steady flame of tenderness that stubbornly outshines them. Tish and Fonny have each been forged in that fire. It shapes and sustains them as keenly as it burns.