Barry Jenkins takes on James Baldwin for his next feature, and it’s a match made in heaven.
I was in from the opening shot. The camera soars over a young couple as they silently stroll along hand-in-hand. Reaching the end of their path, we get closer to them so we can see their expressions, and realise that this is not just a romantic walk. Their faces betray apprehension. This is the introduction to Tish and Fonny’s story, as told by 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layans). It’s accompanied by a beautiful score from Nicholas Britell, perfectly capturing the atmosphere without being emotionally manipulative.
Fonny (Stephan James), we learn, has been falsely accused of a crime, and Tish has discovered that she is pregnant. It’s not a great position for the two to be in. What follows is a story of love, of family support, of getting by in trying circumstances. It’s also a commentary on race relations and the US legal system, most poignantly presented by Fonny’s friend Daniel (a great supporting scene by Brian Tyree Henry).
In fact, the supporting cast, in general, is really strong, particularly Regina King as Tish’s mother; but it’s the moments when the two young people are alone together that really elevate the film. They are utterly believable as childhood sweethearts, and Jenkins frequently trains the camera directly on his actors’ faces, having them look straight down the lens, resulting in an honesty of emotion which is unavoidable.
There’s one shot featuring a walk in the rain and a red umbrella, and I defy you not to think of another cinematic thwarted love story when you see it.
Barry Jenkins has transformed James Baldwin’s novel into a subtle yet powerful on-screen love story with layers.