The instrument of that supremacy in “Beale Street” is a lizardy white beat cop (Ed Skrein), who frames Fonny for rape. How the cop pulls this off isn’t of much concern. It’s a given that the system is racist, rigged, which Jenkins partly conveys through the dawning consciousness of Fonny’s white lawyer (Finn Wittrock). For the lovers and their families what matters is Fonny’s freedom, which they struggle to obtain with the lawyer they can’t afford and by reaching out to the rape victim, a pawn in the cop’s scheme. Tish’s mother, Sharon, (Regina King, reliably forceful) even travels to Puerto Rico to confront the woman (Emily Rios), which uneasily complicates the story instead of enriching it.
In “Beale Street,” Jenkins is inviting you to look deeply at these men and women, to see how they look to, and at, each other. He does this primarily through an expressionist visual style that can make words superfluous. The ethereal vision of Fonny wreathed in smoke isn’t only striking; it exalts this moment and communicates its evanesce, turning emotion and thought into image. A sensitive colorist, Jenkins’s work here is subtler than in “Moonlight,” though he again uses it to deepen the mood and transmit ideas: the life-affirming green associated with Tish’s family; the blue and gold that Fonny and Tish wear when they first pledge themselves to each other — colors that later resurface in jail.
When Jenkins is true to himself, he soars; he stumbles, though, when he’s overly faithful to the novel or doesn’t trust the audience. (A showily centered shot of a landlord’s skullcap reads like a sign for “Friendly Jew!”) The trip to Puerto Rico affirms Sharon’s love and force of will, but mostly feels like one female victim badgering another. In another exchange, again involving women at odds, Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) slaps his wife (a blazing Aunjanue Ellis) to the floor. The blow upstages everything, including the very fine actors, and the tension between secular and religious love. The violence is in the novel, where it’s far too casual, but slapping a woman just doesn’t register as it once did.
Tish’s voice-over does a lot of work, guiding you through the narrative turns as it adds social commentary and personal asides. Layne and James are appealing, but perhaps because their characters’ lives are so fragmented, their performances never build the emotional momentum or find the depths of feeling the story needs. Jenkins does find it, though, most memorably in a staggering flashback with Fonny’s old friend, Daniel (a brilliant Brian Tyree Henry). Daniel has just been released from prison, after being framed by the police. Now, as he sits in Fonny and Tish’s home, gently held by love and friendship — and by Jenkins’s limpid gaze — Daniel seems to grow heavier, monumental. He’s sharing a familiar story of raw, brutal American racial injustice, and it is devastating.