Film Review – If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk
What writer/director Barry Jenkins has proven – both in his Oscar winning Moonlight (2016) and now with If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) – is his ability to take deep, humanistic emotions and play it out in lyrical fashion. Seeing his visuals unfold is like witnessing a painter putting together their latest masterpiece. He has such tonal control, keeping us locked into his narrative through his characters, lighting, and music. His work is like seeing a poem come to life. It would make sense, then, that with Beale Street, he would take on the challenge of adapting the book by famed writer James Baldwin. The combination of Baldwin and Jenkins has created one of the more searing cinematic experiences you’ll have at the theater this year.
On paper, the story appears simple enough. Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are two young black Americans living in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish and Fonny are deeply in love – the kind of love that causes everything around them to magically disappear. When they look into each other’s eyes, James Laxton’s cinematography has them staring right into the camera, disorienting the viewer and placing them right into their conversations. Everything is set for the two to live happily ever after, until Fonny is falsely accused of a crime and is sent to prison. At the same time, Tish becomes pregnant with their child, and must handle the pressure or preparing for the newborn while fighting to get Fonny exonerated.
Even as I type out that last paragraph, it doesn’t really summarize what Jenkins is doing here. The themes behind Beale Street is so much bigger than a simple plot description can cover. We get flashes of what it means to grow up in this particular part of the world in its beauty and ugliness. While the connection between Tish and Fonny has resulted in the creation of life, that also brings a new set of problems. Tish’s parents (Colman Domingo, Regina King) embrace what has happened, whereas Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) rejects it as a product of sin. There’s also the question of how the baby will be looked after financially, given that one parent is locked away.
A bigger theme is the corruption of a justice system that is clearly geared against black people, particularly young black men. We all know the statistics of prison populations, and how that has continued to foster a negative stereotype of African-American males. It’s a justice system that seeks resolution above truth. Fonny’s arrest and imprisonment is based off of testimony that – in all likelihood – was gathered quickly and was probably coerced. Tish and her family has to cope with the mounting legal fees of Fonny’s case. To make money, Tish’s father sells stolen goods out of the back of his van, and her mother takes a major risk in trying to prove Fonny commit the accused crime by taking matters into her own hands. Both of these could be viewed as unwise, even illegal acts, but they’re done out of empathy and desperation, because the family has little options left.
It’s a sad reality that many prisoners who stand by their innocence are treated far worse than those that plead guilt. Throughout, Jenkins inserts a number of black and white photos of people in real life, many pictures depicting discrimination and police brutality. It adds a heavy dose of reality into the narrative, telling us that the story we’re seeing on screen may be make believe but the social implications are very much true to life. But that doesn’t make Jenkins film a dour, depressing experience. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Seeing Tish, Fonny, and their families come together to tackle these problems as a collective whole was uplifting and inspiring. Love is used as a source of strength, allowing our characters to survive when things are at their most stressful.
Regina King comes to the forefront as the standout performance. As Tish’s mother, King exudes tenderness, understanding, and compassion. She’s the kind of parent that will stand up for their loved ones through thick and thin. There’s a quiet ease about King’s delivery, almost understated in a way. When she confronts Fonny’s mother after discovering Tish’s pregnancy, she does so not in anger but in a desire for connection, knowing that the baby will need two grandmothers in its life, not just one. King has one major scene in which she gets to pour out all of her thoughts and feelings, and she accomplishes it with such finesse and power that it startles us just how relatable a person in her position is. In that scene alone, she’s not just a mother, she’s every mother that’s ever lived.
If there’s something to take away from If Beale Street Could Talk, it’s that love and hope can keep people going far longer than they might expect. Often, we see these characters on the brink of collapse, but the bonds they share for one another keeps them steady. In times where hate and animosity are daily topics of discussion, here is a film that rises above it all, and does so with elegance and grace.