“If Beale Street Could Talk” Movie Review


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     There’s no telling the heights writer/director Barry Jenkins will ultimately reach, but the amazing work he has on display with “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a certain indication there is no limit to his potential given this is just his third feature.  Based on the book by the late James Baldwin (the subject of the powerful 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”), Jenkins' film, taking place in the early 1970s, explores social issues which sadly remain topical in today’s society.  At its core, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a deep rooted love story where two soulmates must navigate the pitfalls of a legal system seemingly designed to work against them.  There is, perhaps, no greater injustice than the thought of two people meant to be together, only to be separated by prison walls when someone is accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  And the fact many of these issues remain nearly fifty years after Baldwin penned the novel is a stain on the fabric of our society and our role as human beings.

     As narrated by the story’s lead character, Tish (KiKi Layne), the film reveals to us early on that the father of her unborn child, Fonny (Stephan James), has been arrested for a sexual assault which given they were together the night of the crime, means it was impossible for him to have been the suspect.  A scenario which means the couple is separated by a glass barrier during visitation, even when Tish first informs Fonny they are going to have a baby.  The first thought about the information given at this point in the film is why was Fonny arrested in the first place?  If it can be proven he wasn’t anywhere near where the crime occurred at the time it occurred, how did he end up handcuffed and in the back of a police car?  Those questions are eventually answered with a set of twisted facts and racially charged legal politics that will only infuriate you.  If only it could be said stories like this aren’t true, but they are.

     Jenkins uses a non linear format to tell the story, allowing the audience to flashback to the very foundation of Fonny and Tish’s romance.  We also view the story in the present as Fonny remains in jail awaiting trial while the family deals with Tish’s pregnancy and the legal defense necessary to prove Fonny did not commit the crime.  These issues set up two key scenes in which the acting is some of the best you will see in a film this year.  It’s my understanding that both of these scenes are the highlight of Baldwin’s book as well.

     The first could easily play out on a Broadway stage as Tish reveals to her mother, Sharon (Regina King), that she and Fonny are having a baby.  This leads to an after dinner conversation adding Tish’s father, Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) to the mix.  In hilarious fashion, Sharon pulls down a top shelf bottle of liquor for the occasion, a gesture of which Joseph can sense the importance of the pending announcement.  The scene is a clear indication of the loving nature of this family.  Through the reactions of each person, we gain a clear understanding of the fact they will support one another through thick and thin, never wavering even in the toughest of times.

     It is then decided they will invite Fonny’s family over to tell them the big news. And through Tish’s narration, we are warned some of the personalities have never mixed very well.  Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), seems to have a long history with Joseph, but his wife, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), brings with her an overt belief in God and feels it is necessary to chastise those who do not follow suit.  Her daughters, Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Shiela (Dominique Thorne) are literal clones of their mother and the three of them look down arrogantly at Tish and her family, criticizing them after the announcement and judging their every move in the aftermath.  All of this while Fonny remains in jail with an uncertain future.

     The second scene involves the fact that the victim in the crime, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), has fled the country to her native Puerto Rico and cannot be found by the District Attorney.  Common sense would dictate if you don’t have a victim, how can you have a crime?  Particularly if there are two witnesses who can testify as to Fonny’s whereabouts at the time of the crime.  Nonetheless, Sharon takes it upon herself to track Victoria down and is able to come face to face with her, revealing the true nature of the situation.  But none of what she uncovers ultimately matters with the racial injustice common within the system that seeks to ensure Fonny is convicted and sent to prison.

     Jenkins expertly weaves these scenes within a very tender and emotionally charged narrative centered around Fonny and Tish falling in love, moving in together, and having a family.  It’s heartbreaking to see these two having to overcome so much simply because of race, but you also realize the feelings of hate resonate on both sides, making a potential solution seem impossible. 

     “If Beale Street Could Talk” is Jenkins' followup to his Best Picture winning “Moonlight” (2016), a set of sterling accomplishments which now cements his name amongst the top filmmakers in the industry.  And what really strikes me about his work is the fact each of these two films have something important to say and successfully ingrain their respective messages into the minds of the audience long after leaving the theater.  This is a testament to both his writing and directing, but also to the performances of his actors, particularly those of Stephan James, who recently shined along side Julia Roberts in Amazon’s “Homecoming”, and Regina King who both nail their respective characters in a way that would make any thespian green with envy.  These elements, along with a breakout performance by KiKi Layne, create yet another exceptional film from Jenkins and one of the best of the year.  GRADE: A