If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins.
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry, and Dave Franco.
A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.
It’s fitting that Alonzo “Fonny” is a sculpt artist, as the methodically directed facial expressions within If Beale Street Could Talk are essentially similar constructions from Barry Jenkins (who recently helmed Best Picture winner Moonlight, and here is writing the screenplay and adapting the James Baldwin novel of the same name). Much has been and will be said about cinematographer James Laxton and Barry Jenkins’ usage of colorful shot composition and the intoxicating quality every striking image contains (tracking shots, symmetrical imagery, artsy techniques, you name it), but what sticks out above all is the focus; Barry is a master at knowing what the audience should be looking at and how to go about ensuring they glue their eyes to a particular section, whether they want to look away or not. The appropriate jazzy and blues score from Nicholas Britell enhances these moments, giving them a sense of urgency and intensity even during the quietest and serene events.
The set up for If Beale Street Could Talk involves the current but wholly relevant trend of injustice against blacks, located in the Bronx during the 1970s, seeing a black man going to jail for a crime he did not commit. As Fonny (Stephan James) is potentially facing death unless his committed fiancé and childhood friend Tish (Kiki Layne, a relative newcomer delivering a soul-draining performance blending remarkable inner strength with serious vulnerability and fragility into a tour de force built on the lyrical beauty of her narrative words and unshakable love for her partner) can clear his name/prove his innocence regarding a rape accusation, she is going through a pregnancy preparing to birth their child. On one end of the spectrum the film is marching towards new life, and on the other, possibly death.
Whereas most storytellers would be interested in telling a clear-cut narrative about bringing the wrongdoers to justice (Ed Skrein plays a racist officer that is implied to have likely had something to do with the rape victim naming Fonny as the suspect), making a mystery out of who actually committed the crime, and playing up the inherent drama of the situation (oddly enough, this does happen during a tonally inconsistent family dinner gone to hell early on complete with an over-the-top religious zealot of a grandmother cursing the unborn baby for being conceived out of wedlock, with the majority of the characters never brought up again leaving me questioning if they had a bigger part in the novel), Barry Jenkins is more fascinated by the love story aspect. Although, this is no traditional love story, but rather one built on lengthy poetic glances and the unwavering belief from Tish that Fonny is innocent. The logical storytelling processes that have been ingrained into our minds as moviegoing audiences tell us that there could be a twist where he is guilty or that he was set up by a friend, but there are no tricks here, just unabashed lucid burning love.
As such, the narrative of If Beale Street Could Talk is tightly focused on one-off character interactions and graceful interactions within the relationship, whether it be a loss of virginity, convenience store harassment, or positive and uplifting exchanges such as one with Dave Franco looking to sell the couple an apartment room. After trying endlessly with constant pushback from white people, this tenant is kind and fair, only interested in seeing people happy together. Brian Tyree Henry also pops in as a friend recounting the horrors of his jail time with such sincerity, that it’s downright harrowing to listen to even know the specifics of his abuse are never laid out. The only issue is that all of these chapters are incredibly drawn out and lengthy, which is fine except for the fact that some of them don’t need to be. I realize you can’t rush art, but I’m also not sure I need the running time extended by 20 minutes so the camera can cut back and forth to Fonny and Tish gazing at one another for what feels like minutes on end, whether it’s a flashback to one of the heart-wrenching prison visits.
The other major player is Regina King as Tish’s supportive mother who also believes in Fonny’s innocence. Initially, I had reservations that this might be the wrong time for a movie to be released about a man falsely convicted of rape, but the film doesn’t forget to do right by that victim, occasionally exploring her mental suffering and the frustrating but understandable reasoning behind her picking out Fonny as her sexual abuser. There’s a segment where Sharon has a face-to-face confrontation with the victim; it’s this family’s one-shot at convincing her to set the story straight and right. Not to spoil anything, but the desperation in Regina King’s pleading is palpable; it’s the stuff Oscar-nomination clips are made of. It’s also worth mentioning that Emily Rios holds her own during the difficult confrontation, generating empathy despite her problematic actions. Other male family members do what they can to raise funds to pay for a white lawyer they happen to be skeptical about in the first place, all of whom don’t receive much characterization.
However, through all of their individual actions, If Beale Street Could Talk does paint a lyrical portrait of systemic racism and injustice. The stock footage photographs during some narrations might push things into heavy-handed territory for some, but they are necessary for a filmmaker and target demographic all-too-familiar with this pain on display. Barry Jenkins seems to be leaning too far into adapting the novel rather than transforming it into a film (some of the narration gets to be excessive even if it is beautifully worded), and even at two hours it feels slightly too long, but the core of the story is achingly touching. It’s a testament to the endless struggles true love can endure. That love is visible within every breathtaking shot of Fonny and Tish.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com