If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 59 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 2018 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Barry Jenkins Actors: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Pedro Pascal

 


 

B

eale Street is a street in New Orleans, where Louis Armstrong and jazz were born; where every black person in America was born, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. It is their legacy – and this film is meant to give expression to this legacy. Thus begins “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which explains this, more eloquently, through a quote by James Baldwin – an American essayist and novelist – whose book was adapted by writer/director Barry Jenkins for the big screen.

The story proper is narrated by 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), who jumps around in the timeline of her own life to tell the tale of her relationship with 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), a former short order cook and aspiring carpenter, whom she grew up with as inseparable friends in New York. Though it’s not immediately known why, Fonny is in prison. The couple isn’t married, which doesn’t bother Tish, though she brings her significant other news of her pregnancy, which is bittersweet information; they’re delighted about the coming child, but the cold metal bars and glass windows keep them uncomfortably separated. Tish’s family (mother Sharon [Regina King], father Joe [Colman Domingo], and sister Ernestine [Teyonah Parris]), however, isn’t as elated, though they do their best to maintain their composure. And the Hunt family has never really approved of young Tish – particularly matriarch Alice (Aunjanue Ellis), who is more than happy to speak her mind about the situation.

As their romance is explored and their histories detailed, shifting back and forth from their upbringing to their courtship to Fonny’s incarceration to the present, there’s a poetic quality evident – in the cinematography, the slow-motion, the observations about love, and the calming score (by Nicholas Britell, who also collaborated with Jenkins on “Moonlight”) playing quietly around them. But there’s also a ferocity lurking in the background, stemming from violence, heated arguments, revelations about Fonny’s troubles with the law, and a sense of looming tragedy. But the love story itself is the highlight, boasting a rawness and realism, smartly designed amid the alternating fantasy and horror of a carefree past and a forbidding future.

As Tish explains, the brunt of the problem is the system; this community is told their lives aren’t worth anything – a sentiment reinforced not only by peers but also by police and politicians – which lends to an endless cycle of crime and poverty and fear and angst. Racism and hatred are everywhere. And getting pushed into a corner – forced to choose between only a smattering of terrible options – seems to be an unavoidable obstacle in all of their lives. As courtroom runarounds, corruption by the authorities, and prison sentences stack up against the lead characters, hope and faith seem to be the only possible remedies; exasperating injustice is so prevalent that it would be genuinely surprising if good fortune found its way into their story.

The only reprieves arrive in the form of flashbacks, showing the young lovers savoring the bliss of spending time together, which retain the melodious components from before. Plus, the genuineness of friends consoling – and of family members supporting – one another helps with the trials and tribulations; the performances are sensational, giving an authenticity to what could have been a simplistic, predominantly bitter view of oppression and intolerance. Nevertheless, there’s a slowness to the proceedings, intricate as the character development and emotions might be, which makes the film feel overstuffed. It’s potent and emotional, but unfocused enough (documentary-like still images and some of the narration turn a personal story into a distanced, message film) that its power diminishes – especially toward the ending – to deny the film a truly satisfying resolution. The parting shot, however, is quite moving.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10