The Oscar nominations came out today, and as always, such an occurrence is bound to spark a fire of controversy about such-and-such films being snubbed while other films enjoyed perhaps more than their due of appreciation. Yet it does not feel like a reaching statement to say that If Beale Street Could Talk was indeed snubbed. The romantic drama, directed by Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins and based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, received only three nominations: Best Supporting Actress (for Regina King), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. Three is a startling dearth of recognition for a film that succeeds in terms of acting, visual efficacy, and overall emotional impact.
If Beale Street Could Talk tells the love story of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne, Chicago Med) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, Race), a young couple in New York City who are falling in love while also dealing with racism and racial tension. This culminates in Fonny’s wrongful arrest for rape, which coincides with Tish’s learning that she is pregnant. Much of the movie is concerned with the ripple effect that Fonny’s arrest produces throughout both their lives, as individuals and as a couple, and the lives of their families and friends. Tish and her mother, Sharon (King, Seven Seconds), fight for Fonny’s freedom, while Fonny struggles through the experience of incarceration and tries to retain both his sense of self and his relationship with Tish. The storytelling is accomplished in part through alternating timelines, which switch between the development of Tish and Fonny’s relationship prior to Fonny’s arrest and the fallout that occurs afterward.
One of the film’s most masterful accomplishments lies in its very careful attention to each character as an individual. A particularly telling scene occurs when Tish first visits Fonny in jail and they get into an argument; it is clear that the argument is borne not from anything lacking in their relationship itself, but from their own individual frustrations and respective inabilities to completely understand the other’s situation. Tish feels helpless and scared because she cannot help Fonny and is facing the prospect of pregnancy while he is in jail; Fonny is frustrated because he has been wrongfully imprisoned and is unable to be there for Tish. The fact that even in this scene, they come around from their respective frustrations and reaffirm their love and support for each other, only strengthens the sense of the gravity and wholeness of their love. Another standout is of course Regina King’s performance as Sharon, whose visit to Puerto Rico in order to plead with the rape survivor Victoria (Emily Rios, Breaking Bad) to admit Fonny’s innocence is perhaps the most finely crafted and emotionally resonant scene of the entire film.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterpiece on a visual and tonal level, echoing much of the slow-burn pacing and colorful cohesion that Jenkins trademarked two years ago with Moonlight. From the brief and bemusing appearance of Dave Franco as a Jewish realtor to the haunting, wholly incredible monologue of Fonny’s friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, Widows), it is a film packed with rich feeling and timeliness. It speaks to the careful attentiveness and thought of everyone involved in creating it, and one can only hope that audiences respond to it with similar attention.