And then we see how Fonny ended up in jail and If Beale Street Could Talk takes a hard right turn. He’s been fingered for the rape of a young Puerto Rican woman, though the location of the rape making it essentially impossible that he committed the crime. And despite the best efforts of Tish and her family, the woman has returned to Puerto Rico with no way for them to check her story and find the holes that will set him free. Everyone knows he’s been sent up the river on a trumped up charge, but no one has the means, the money or (to be honest) the skin color to set it right. The world is against them, and the world is very much winning.
Much like Moonlight, the brunt of the storytelling lies in the actors and their performances, with Layne leading the line by offering a tender and often quietly devastating performance. As a woman of just 19, barely more than a girl, she has to contend with the ire of her mother (Regina King), disappointed that she would be impregnated out of wedlock, only to immediately have the man she bonded with so deeply taken away from her. King has gotten the majority of the plaudits for her work here, and with good reason, but don’t sleep on what Layne’s managed to accomplish in her first feature film role. As her counterpart in love, James is tasked with weighing a sort of commanding masculinity with tenderness (he’s the older person in the relationship, and could easily be perceived as taking advantage of her like her mother believes). And last, but certainly not least, is the actor of 2018, Brian Tyree Henry (he of Widows and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Atlanta), who arrives for a bravura sequence to talk about his time in jail and the humanity that was taken from him in what is almost certainly the best single scene in any film this year.