If Beale Street Could Talk
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins based on “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King
I remember walking into my screening of “Moonlight” a few years back with no idea what the film was, other than what I had heard coming out of TIFF. As Barry Jenkins’ story unfolded in front of us I was enthralled by Barry Jenkins’s direction and his screenplay; I was impressed with the level of acting, especially that of Mahershala Ali, who would go on to win Best Supporting Actor. What struck me the most was James Laxton’s cinematography and how integral it was to the story Mr. Jenkins’s was trying to tell.
Jenkins is back with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the novel of the same name by James Baldwin.
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” is the story of a young husband, Fonny (Stephan James) and his wife, Tish (KiKi Layne) struggling in early 1970’s Harlem. They are madly in love and want nothing more than to start a family. Before they get the chance to do that, Fonny is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
Jenkins’s adaptation makes brilliant use of flashbacks to reinforce the strong love between Fonny and Tish. That bond and the structure of the story really define the underlying drama as Tish, now pregnant, has to track down Fonny’s accuser to prove his innocence, eventually involving their mutual families, despite not wanting to do so.
Early in the film, Tish must break the news to her parents that she’s pregnant. Her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo) and mother, Sharon (Regina King) are elated at the news as is her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). They decide that now is a good time to break the news to Fonny’s family. Because they are not yet married and Fonny’s mother is a devout woman, Tish is afraid of breaking the news. When the news is eventually broken, Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach) is as elated as Sharon and Joseph were, but Mrs. Hunt IAunjanue Ellis) and siblings, Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne) won’t have anything to do with a child born out of wedlock.
The camera work in this scene focuses solely on the emotion and the reaction of each of the characters, allowing us to be an active participant; you are so engrossed in what is happening on the screen that you cannot turn your attention away. This happens throughout the rest of the story as Jenkins takes us back to happier times.
He uses these flashbacks as a means to build Fonny’s character. It paints the picture of a hardworking, decent man who would go to whatever means to protect Tish. Their love, it makes you feel like you’re ensconced in a bubble. This is encapsulated in numerous scenes, not the least of which is when Fonny takes Tish on a tour of a prospective loft.
Jenkins and the characters ask us to envision a future life, full of happiness. It also speaks to Fonny’s resourcefulness as he thinks about their future together: even though he doesn’t have the money together, he has come to an understanding with Levy (Dave Franco) to keep the place for them until he has the money. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton again bring us into their world with the use of mimicry as they position furniture and appliances throughout the loft. Jenkins breaks the fourth wall in this moment, but carefully orchestrates it so that we still remain in the bubble. The amount of sunlight captured by Laxton is just right, giving us a moment of hope, of joy, of love.
There is a follow up sequence later that same evening as they visit a small grocer. Something triggers a reaction from Fonny that could be perceived as violence, but we know that he has been goaded into a confrontation with Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). And just as quickly as his street smarts kick in, Tish is there to cool him down. Their love, once again, prevails. But the sequence is a stark reminder of the current times we live in. It isn’t a reminder so much of the unnecessary violence, but of the power of two people to overcome any obstacle.
It is within these moments that “If Beale Street Could Talk” really sings, bringing a gravitas to Tish’s struggle as she works to defend her husband against all odds. This, coupled with her impending pregnancy, make their journey and our sharing within that journey, worthy.
Amidst the ruins of their Harlem apartment, Tish gives birth to their child. You might be asking yourself why I’m sharing this with you. To be honest, Jenkins’s story brought us to this point. But, more importantly, it’s a reflective moment as Tish remembers their last night together with Fonny and Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) over dinner and beers. Daniel is a part of Fonny’s past; Tish and their child are a part of his future and much like Phoenix rising from the ashes, this moment symbolizes their future together.
That is the power of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It is so much more than the sum of its individual parts and, just as with “Moonlight,” this story allows the audience to feel alive. It is as reflective as it is hopeful.
4 out of 4 stars