Dir: Barry Jenkins

With: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King

Runtime: 119 minutes

IT has been four years now since the #Oscarssowhite campaign drew attention to the industry’s tendency to ignore black talent. Slowly, if not always surely, attitudes appear to be changing, with Jordan Peele’s Get Out leading the charge last year with four nominations and one win (original screenplay).

This year, several takes on the African-American experience are in contention for statuettes. Among them, Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, is the cornball crowd pleaser, going all out to raise a smile even if it leaves the viewer slightly queasy afterwards. If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from the novel by James Baldwin, could not be more different. Intense but dreamy, detailed yet sweeping, it is a film that shuns pat answers and neat endings, much like Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Oscar winner.

Jenkins opens with, what else, some of Baldwin’s sublime words, these ones explaining how Beale Street is somewhere and everywhere. “Every black person born in America is born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of an American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”

Here, Beale Street is Harlem in the 1970s. Our Romeo and Juliet are Fonny and Trish (KiKi Layne and Stephan James), friends from childhood, now lovers. He is 22, she is 19. As Trish tells us a voiceover to photographs showing black life and death, Fonny was lucky in making it to such a grand old age. Because he had carpentry to pour his time and energy into he avoided the fate of too many of his contemporaries. “The kids had been told that they weren’t worth **** and everything they saw around them proved it,” says Trish.

But Fonny has not escaped entirely. He is in jail, wrongly accused of rape, and Trish is pregnant. Hardly the best of beginnings for any couple, and her family are worried how they will cope. Fonny’s devout mother blames Trish. It is just another problem to add to the pile, top of which is getting Fonny out of jail, not easy since his accuser has gone missing.

For spells, Beale Street plays out like a crime procedural, as we follow the fight to clear Fonny’s name, much of it led by Trish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King, one of the film’s three Oscar nods for best supporting actress, music, and adapted screenplay, Jenkins). It’s a plot, albeit a thin one that goes to a lot of familiar places. Far more satisfying are the scenes of everyday life, as it is lived by these young lovers, from remembrances of walks in the park to visiting time at the jail. Like Beale Street, Trish and Fonny are Everyman and woman, except, because of the colour of their skin and the prejudices of the society they live in, they are not allowed to be.