This article was originally published on Film Threat (November 29, 2018).
Barry Jenkins’ stunning adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, is poetry in motion. A gripping narrative and vivid imagery transcends the page and illuminates the big screen as Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) shares her scattered tale of true love and tackles adversity in 1970s Harlem. Throughout the film, we feel submerged in her world as Jenkin’s artful direction floods viewers with vibrant colors, groovy tunes, and the threat of danger lurking in the dark corners of her neighborhood.
Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) and Tish grew up together, always feeling like they were one in the same. Their friendship suddenly blossomed into romance as new feelings overwhelmingly arose to the surface. Now they longed to be as one. Fonny and Tish start planning a life together, they get engaged and go apartment hunting, excited to embark on this new journey together. During what is supposed to be the best time in their lives, a malicious officer intentionally misidentifies Fonny as a rapist and incarcerates him. Fonny is merely one of many young innocent black men falsely convicted of a crime he obviously did not commit. It is very upsetting to think about how relevant this story still is today.
“…merely one of many young innocent black men falsely convicted of a crime…”
While Fonny is in prison, Tish finds out that she’s pregnant. He’s happy to hear the news, but she needs to break it to their families. This is one of many instances where we see the best and worst in humanity. Tish’s parents and sister – Joseph (Colman Domingo), Sharon (Regina King), and Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) – are pleasantly surprised. Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), joins in their celebration of new life. After all, their kids are practically married, his imprisonment just got in the way of a wedding. However, Fonny’s greater-than-thou-Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters are spiteful and judgemental, going so far as to curse the sinful unborn babe.
I’m not going to spoil the movie for you by saying what happens next, I just want to highlight how brilliantly Jenkins captures this significant and jaw-dropping moment in Baldwin’s novel. Viewers were on the edge of their seats, there were audible gasps and arms even flailed. You seldom witness that kind of visceral reaction at a film screening. You don’t just watch this film, you feel it.
All of our senses are on high alert, reacting to every cue Jenkins and this magnificent cast gives us. Our hearts break for Tish and Fonny as they are forced to live apart. Simultaneously, Domingo and King warm our broken hearts by demonstrating what it genuinely means to be a family.
“All of our senses are on high alert, reacting to every cue…”
Joseph is strong, comforting and compassionate as he consoles Tish and does everything in his power to help her free Fonny. Sharon is courageous, intelligent, and vulnerable as she endeavors to prove his innocence. Layne and James’ light up the screen. Their chemistry makes Fonny and Tish’s love palpable. You can feel their pain and desperation as they yearn to be reunited. The whole family and cast beautifully represents true love and acceptance in all forms.
If Beale Street Could Talk is an immersive experience. Viewers will get wrapped up in Baldwin’s timely tale of love, perseverance, and prejudice. This is another brilliant film in a wave of compelling features that showcases the importance of having the support of a loving family. When we face adversity – whether it is a matter of race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, etc. – it makes a world of difference to have people in your corner. Even when it seems like the system is out to get you, this film reminds us how so much strength comes from compassion and hope.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) Directed and written by Barry Jenkins. Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis.
9 out of 10 stars
TIFF’S TAKE BONUS