Black man and woman with eyes closed leaning their foreheads against each other

With Moonlight, his 2016 breakthrough film, writer-director Barry Jenkins defied our expectations. If you knew the Oscar winner was set in a poor Miami neighborhood and that two of its characters were drug dealers, you still weren’t prepared for its mixture of tenderness, beauty and longing.

His follow-up film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is just as beautiful but not quite so unexpected. Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel and set in Harlem, it faithfully captures the author’s voice as it shares a bluesy, poetic account of young love blossoming in the midst of racial injustice.

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) is a 19-year-old who suddenly finds herself attracted to her lifelong friend, 22-year-old Fonny Hunt (Stephan James). Tish becomes pregnant and they get engaged, but their plans are dashed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s clear he’s been set up by a racist cop, but they have no way to prove it, especially since the alleged victim has disappeared.

As in Moonlight, Jenkins portrays a loving and tender side of African-American life that doesn’t always make it into the movies. Tish first learns she’s pregnant when Fonny is already in jail and awaiting trial. Though this means she may have to raise the baby on her own, the news is greeted with joy by her family.

Her mother, Sharon (Regina King), orders husband Joseph (Colman Domingo) to get out the liquor so they can toast the new life. Militant older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) joins in and tells Tish to hold her head high. A sour note is added by Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), a judgmental Christian who curses the unborn child as the product of sinful lust, but Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) proudly invites Joseph out for a drink.

One of my problems with the film is that Jenkins isn’t content to let the characters’ actions speak for themselves, even though they make it clear that love flourishes between the two sweethearts and between Tish and her family. Instead, it underlines the actions with borderline sappy dialogue. “Don’t ever think that I don’t know that you love me,” Fonny tells Tish at a crucial juncture.

Cinematographer James Laxton also piles on the romance in his depiction of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, often lingering on the loving gazes they exchange. His camera seems particularly transfixed by Layne’s girlish face and large eyes, which seem to reveal the innocent soul of a woman caught up in forces she doesn’t understand.

If you prize subtlety, you may find the film sometimes tells its inspirational story in a way that’s heavy-handed and overly sentimental. If so, you’ll likely be further annoyed by scenes that always take their time and sometimes overstay their welcome.

Beale Street’s greatest strength is undoubtedly Baldwin’s prose, which is captured with the help of frequent narration delivered by Tish. But this device also contributes to the feeling that, despite Laxton’s gorgeous camera work and consistently fine acting, the film is more a literary achievement than a cinematic one.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

If Beale Street Could Talk (rated R) opens Jan. 3 at the Gateway Film Center.

Is there such a thing as too much sensitivity?

As I look back on 2018, two films strike me as the most surprising: I Feel Pretty and Welcome to Marwen. What’s surprising is not so much the films themselves as the responses they received. Though I enjoyed them, both got abysmal ratings from most critics.

The reviews had a common thread in that many accused the flicks of making fun of their respective lead characters: Amy Schumer’s Renee Bennett, who worships traditional standards of beauty and gains self-esteem only after a head injury causes her to think she’s attained them; and Steve Carell’s Mark Hogancamp, who creates an imaginary world to help him deal with injuries from a hate crime. 

Personally, I don’t feel either character is being maligned. Most puzzling is the charge that Renee is mocked for having a less-than-svelte appearance. Anyone who thinks that has never watched Schumer’s standup routines.

This all reminds me of the uproar over comedian Michelle Wolf’s jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. People said, on scant evidence, that she was making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s appearance. It’s good to be on the watch for slights against women and other victimized groups, but doing so with a knee-jerk attitude helps no one.

Appears in Issue: