Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parrish, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock
Writer: Barry Jenkins, based on the novel by James Baldwin
Director: Barry Jenkins
Distributor: Annapurna Pictures
Release Date: December 14, 2018
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK opens with an onscreen quote from the late James Baldwin, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. The actual Beale Street, he tells us, is located in New Orleans. His father, and Louis Armstrong, and jazz, all came from there. Metaphorically, Baldwin continues, all black people are from some Beale Street, no matter their city of origin. (This reviewer feels unqualified to weigh in on the accuracy of Baldwin’s assessment.)
We’re in New York and, based on clothing, hairstyles, and record turntables, we appear to be in the 1970s (Baldwin’s book was published in 1974), though no year is specified. Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), our nineteen-year-old narrator, and twenty-two-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) have been best friends for their whole lives. They’ve become lovers, and would have gotten married, except that Fonny is in jail (we don’t find out why for awhile). Now Tish is pregnant. Her family is excited; Fonny’s family (except for his father, played by Michael Beach) much less so.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK moves back and forth in time between Tish and Fonny’s romance and Tish’s pregnancy/Fonny’s incarceration, albeit with the latter, we never get further into the prison than the visiting room. There is a bit of legal thriller, as Tish and her family, Fonny’s dad and eventually a lawyer (Finn Wittrock) try to figure out how to exonerate Fonny. Mostly, though, IF BEALE STREET could talk is a quiet drama that is a character study, set within the grinding effect that racism has on everyday African-Americans. Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) have both been arrested on the whims of white police officers, and then sentenced by white courts inclined to believe the worst of black men. The effect is not only destructive on the men themselves (to say nothing of the justice system), but has ripples upon ripples in their families, their ambitions and their futures.
Director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins does beautiful work, steady work with characters and an extraordinary cast. Layne and James are both magnetic. Regina King is powerful as Tish’s loving, determined mother and Colman Domingo is excellent as Tish’s father.
Jenkins here takes the tack that not only is the personal political, it also speaks to a wider experience. While there are some montages of the indignities suffered by black people (especially men) at the hands of white law enforcement and systemic poverty, we are always focused on Tish and Fonny. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK therefore leaves it to the viewer (as Baldwin’s opening quote leaves it to the reader) to make connections between their specific plight and events throughout their community. Without reading any external material (interviews and the like), it’s hard to know if Jenkins set his film in the past in order to honor Baldwin’s original temporal setting, or because he feels there’s been some sort of change, for good or ill, in the social dynamic.
Because the film is so quiet and at times contemplative, it lacks the kind of narrative hooks that are found in, for instance, THE HATE U GIVE. This makes IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK more immersive than bracing. It’s authentic and moving, but its strength is more in its presentation than its storytelling.
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Article: Movie Review: IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK