Review: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

With his 2016 film “Moonlight,” writer and director Barry Jenkins infused a modern love story with a sense of intimacy so intense that it seems to have become a part of his directorial style.  His new film “If Beale Street Could Talk,” his first movie since that Best Picture Oscar winner, is a very different sort of love story, but Jenkins’ imbues it with the same intimacy, resulting in one of the most personal, powerful, and memorable films of the year.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is based on the 1974 James Baldwin book of the same name.  Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, the story follows Alonzo (or “Fonny,” played by Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne), a young black couple whose plans for a future together are dashed when Fonny is accused of rape and arrested.  It isn’t until after he is in prison that Tish finds out she is pregnant with their first child, as she, along with her family, races to prove Fonny’s innocence.

If Beale Street Could Talk
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James)

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is unique in that it is told from the woman’s perspective; the focus is on her struggles in the outside world, not Fonny’s struggles in prison.  Tish narrates as the story flips between the present and the past, with flashbacks showing how Fonny and Tish, who have known each other since they were children, first fell in love, how they looked for a home together, what they were doing the night the rape took place, and the brush with a racist cop (Ed Skrein) that led to Fonny being accused of the crime.  The film takes an understated approach to showing the injustices against black people in this time in America, but that resonates through powerful dialogue and acting.  Some of these scenes, with their long stretches of conversation taking place in one room, seem like they may be more conducive to theater than film, but Jenkins’ shoots them in a way that gives them another layer of meaning that can only be gleaned from film.  Jenkins frequently films his actors in close up with them looking straight ahead at the camera.  This not only brings the characters closer together (particularly in the scenes between Fonny and Tish when they are gazing at each other) but it brings the audience closer to them, inviting them into those intimate scenes that would otherwise feel like an intrusion.

If Beale Street Could Talk 3
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) go for a walk in the rain

Those scenes between Fonny and Tish are among some of the most beautiful and affectionate moments you could possible see on film, in part thanks to the adoring way Jenkins’ films them, and in part due to the commanding performances from James and Layne.  Layne in particular seems to peel away more layers to Tish as the film progresses.  At the beginning of the film she appears shy, nervous, and maybe even a tad frightened, but there are moments throughout the story where we see how fierce she really is, especially when it comes to defending Fonny.  But while Fonny and Tish are at the story’s center, the film really revolves around their whole family.  Some of these scenes seem superfluous, like a sequence between Tish and Fonny’s opposing families that quickly devolves into a dramatic argument, but they are ultimately there to show the love and sacrifice families make for each other.  Teyonah Parris plays Tish’s tough older sister Ernestine.  Colman Domingo plays her father Joseph, who seems to be more aware than anyone else in the movie of just what it takes to survive in this world, particularly in a scene with Fonny’s more world-weary dad (played by Michael Beach).  But it’s Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon who steals every scene with her arresting and sometimes heart-breaking performance as her love for her daughter is combined with her desperation to help her, whatever the cost.  Other members of the supporting cast include Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Pedro Pascal, and Dave Franco.  Two cast members have just one—but one very integral—scene in the entire movie.  Brian Tyree Henry plays Daniel, an old friend of Fonny’s who runs into him one day, but their joyous reunion turns somber as he recounts the time he has unjustly spent in prison, further opening Fonny’s eyes to the injustices of their society.  The other is Aunjanue Ellis who plays Fonny’s mother, a domineering and overly religious woman who believes that Tish is bad for her son.  It’s a bit of a surprise that the story never circles back to her, but it is nice to see the focus instead placed on positive family relationships.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” builds slowly, but it is worth waiting to watch it all unfold.  Jenkins proves that he can use the basis of another’s work and apply his own rapidly developing style to it, showing that he is one of the most fascinating directors working today.  And this story isn’t as tragic as you may think it is.  “Moonlight” ended with a sense of hope, and so does this movie, because no matter what happens, family remains together.

Runtime: 117 minutes. Rated R.

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