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A love supreme

Barry Jenkins delivers an emotional portrait of black love in ‘70s New York

Kiki Layne and Stephan James in “If Beale Street Could Talk”

“If Beale Street Could Talk”—writer-director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his acclaimed breakthrough “Moonlight”—opens on an autumnal New York day, as a young African American couple, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) walk hand in hand. They turn and look deep into each other’s eyes as we hear Tish’s pained voice: “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

We’re abruptly, almost violently, transported to the reception area of a prison—where Tish, face to face with a now-incarcerated Fonny, reveals she’s pregnant. So begins this portrait of black love, the likes of which have never before been seen on screen.

What began as childhood affection between Tish and Fonny flourishes into a full-blown love story on the streets and stoops of ‘70s Harlem. Enduring the disapproving ire of Fonny’s devout mother and the scornful eye of a local beat cop, their love is tested through the hardship of a criminal justice system set up to break them.

A foreboding sense of dread is as palpable as the love between Fonny and Tish. Throughout “Beale Street,” an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Jenkins drives home just how frequently the system is rigged against black men like Fonny—and how quite often, the partners they love are burdened with hope in their absence.

In a show-stopping exchange, Fonny reconnects with a close friend Daniel (a scene-stealing Bryan Tyree Henry, of “Atlanta” fame). Over beers and smokes, Fonny listens as Daniel confides just how harrowing an experience prison can be for men of color.

“The white man has got to be the devil,” he says. The exchange is all the more portentous since we already know Fonny’s fate. It’s a glimpse of vulnerable black masculinity rarely seen in film—the same spirit that made “Moonlight” such a revalation—and for 12-plus minutes we are entranced by the exchange. It’s even more tragic that Tish has been privy all along, carrying the silent dread of what faces them.

“Beale Street” is a ravishing feast for the eyes. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton luxuriate in the gorgeous dark-hued skin tones of this mostly-black cast, photographing them in burnished hues and supple, milky shadows. Nicholas Brittel’s lyrical, jazz-tinged score is entangling, but the highest praise must be reserved for the cast. The two leads, Layne and James, anchor probably the best ensemble of the year.

Regina King as Sharon, Tish’s mother, is the embodiment of motherly love, willing to go to the ends of the earth for her child and grandchild. Coleman Domingo portrays Joseph, Tish’s father, willing to put his own freedom on the line for his grandson’s future. It is an intimate glimpse into a loving dynamic sorely missing from most media portrayals of black family life.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is as much a film about black love as the war zone it often thrives in. Violence, bigotry, and institutional racism loom large, and yet love blooms, endures, and conquers in the midst of such adversity. Jenkins has a deft hand with a soft touch, and it’s never more present than in the film’s final moments. We’re left with an image that is equal parts heart-wrenching and uplifting, sure to haunt you long after the credits roll.

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