Review: If Beale Street Could Talk (TIFF 2018)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: A young, pregnant woman’s (Kiki Layne) family rallies to her aid when her boyfriend (Stephan James) is falsely accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

REVIEW: Success, especially when it seemingly comes out of nowhere, can be a two edged sword. Barry Jenkins had a good career going before MOONLIGHT, but most people in the mainstream weren’t really aware of his work before that film catapulted him to the top of the A-list following his Oscar win. As such, his next movie was always going to be subject to massively high expectations but IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is a worthy follow-up, despite being a strikingly different sort of film.


Based on James Baldwin’s novel, this is a more traditional story than MOONLIGHT, in that it boasts a big ensemble and follows classical Hollywood style being clear cut in what it’s trying to evoke. Basically, this is your traditional love story, between Kiki Layne’s doe-eyed Tish and the impossibly sincere Fonny, played by RACE’s Stephan James. It’s one of those star-crossed Hollywood romances that plays out as so idealized that it can’t possibly be real, but all this works towards what seems to be the film’s ultimate goal. It shows that love, no matter how pure, can’t survive a years-long ordeal, such as the ones suffered by the protagonists when he’s imprisoned, without changing somewhat. It’s heartbreaking.

While Layne and James are excellent the acting plaudits have to go to some of the co-stars, particularly Regina King in a career-changing performance as Tish’s strong-willed, supportive mom. The most powerful moments, such as a trip she takes to Puerto Rico in order to investigate a lead, belong to her and certainly she’ll be a big contender in this year’s awards conversation. Colman Domingo (from “Fear the Walking Dead”) is also terrific as Tish’s loving, street-wise dad, who’s willing to do what he has to do to help out his daughter and her partner, rules be damned, while Michael Beach has a few really good moments as James’s volatile dad.

In fact, the movie is filled with small, one-scene parts played by recognizable faces, such as an unrecognizable Ed Skrein as a racist cop, Dave Franco as a nice guy landlord, Finn Wittrock as a sympathetic lawyer, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, and best of all, Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi!) who damn near steals the show with an amazing monologue about half-way through.

As per the rest of Jenkins’s films, it’s gorgeous to look at, although the cinematography by James Paxton is less overtly stylized than in MOONLIGHT. Nicholas Britell’s score is perfectly grandiose, while Jenkins keeps things moving relatively quickly at just under two hours, although some have complained it feels a little slow.

While I’m not sure IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK will capture the zeitgeist in the same way that MOONLIGHT did, it’s a worthy follow-up that should further establish Jenkins’s bonafides as a legitimately great, consistent director. It’s also a wonderful tribute to James Baldwin’s work (which is seeing a major resurgence as of late), and a movie that will provoke a lot of conversation about issues that, despite being written about in the seventies, are just as relevant today.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.