Writer-director Barry Jenkins virtually came out of nowhere to win an Oscar for 2016's Moonlight, a beautiful coming-of-age and coming-out film about a young black man raised by a crack addict mother.
With his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, an equally evocative movie based on a James Baldwin novel, Jenkins proves his Oscar win was no fluke. The film opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
Set in 1970s Harlem, the movie centers on Tish (KiKi Layne), a young black woman who tries to prove that her incarcerated husband Fonny (Stephan James), a talented sculptor and woodworker, is innocent. A racist cop (Ed Skrein) has put Fonny in prison for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, but the evidence suggests the cop has framed Fonny for the crime. Pregnant, Tish hires a lawyer to try to get Fonny exonerated. Her mother Sharon (Regina King), her father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her particularly assertive sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) all support her.
The film proceeds at a slow pace, but when moments of high drama do take place, they really resonate. In one particularly heated exchange, Tish's parents get in the face of Fonny's mother (Aunjanue Ellis) when she tries to blame Tish for Fonny's troubles. Fonny's sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) enter the fray as well. However, they prove no match for Ernestine, who verbally beats them into submission. And in another scene, Tish's mother confronts the Puerto Rican woman who has accused Fonny of rape and begs her to drop the case. A commentary on racism in America, the film never becomes didactic or preachy because it centers on the personal, more than the political, side of the problem.
The movie features terrific performances by its entire cast, and cinematographer James Laxton, who explicitly references New York street photographers from the era, makes the movie shine. The first English-language feature adaptation of Baldwin's novel, this film suggests just how timeless the themes found in the novel truly are. Chosen by both the National Board of Review and American Film Institute as one of the Top 10 films of the year, the film has rightly received several Golden Globe nominations and stands to be in the running for an Oscar too.