Barry Jenkins pulls off a difficult task in If Beale Street Could Talk. He moves smoothly between a touching love story and the realities of life for black people in America. He (and James Baldwin, who wrote the book) gives us complete characters ... they aren't perfect, they aren't bad, they are not stereotypical. Jenkins is on the side of humanity, so the characters tilt closer to perfection than to badness. And it's clear that the main force pulling them away from perfection is the society in which they live. Somehow, Jenkins shows a realistic society within a love story, such that you could almost say If Beale Street Could Talk ends up a hopeful note. Almost.
Jenkins has a lot to work with, starting with Baldwin, of course. He also has a terrific cast. Regina King finally gets her Oscar (Supporting Actress). If you haven't picked up on the greatness of Brian Tyree Henry yet, here's your chance, because he makes the most of a small part. Jenkins doesn't always take the easy route, either. While the film has a fine soundtrack, Jenkins doesn't use it to place the film by calling on our nostalgia for the popular tunes of the time. It's not the way we are used to hearing a soundtrack, where we are bombarded with the hits of the day. We get Miles and Coltrane and Nina Simone along with Al Green and Billy Preston. It's effective without pandering to the audience.
It's hard to single out one scene among the many, but Henry's work here is unparalleled:
If Beale Street Could Talk is #441 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.