Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are childhood friends who become lovers. However Tish’s love is tested when Fonny is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. With her sweetheart locked behind bars, Tish discovers that she is also pregnant with Fonny’s child. Alone, unwed, pregnant and black, the stakes could not be more stacked against her in a 1960’s America beset with racial prejudice.
…feels like a movie for now, as much it was a book for then.
Director Barry Jenkin’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning ‘Moonlight’ is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s pivotal text, ’If Beale Street Could Talk’. The story of a lost generation of men and families broken by institutionalised racism, this feels like a movie for now as much it was a book for then. From its key opening scene, where an apprehensive Tish must face down Fonny’s rigid, proselytising mother, none of its punches are pulled. If anything this is a scene so good that it comes close to eclipsing the entire movie, in a ‘Fences’-like moment where everybody has to choose a side.
Across the board, the acting is solid throughout. From its warring mothers, (a fantastic, Regina King and a suitably stuck-up Aunjanue Ellis) to its hustling fathers (Michael Beach and the ever-dependable Colman Domingo), the invective is clear that love, no matter how strained, is the glue that holds families together. Faced with racist cop (a sinewy and hateful Ed Skrein) and a damaged rape victim (Emily Rios), the truth splinters with every upward step that Tish and Fonny reach for. In fact, this is a movie where facts are revealed more in conversation than in action. None more so is hinted at than with Bryan Tyree Henry’s excellent Daniel whose haunted allusions to prison life, again nearly overshadow proceedings with another stand-out turn – but this is how it is with the rest of the movie…
Rather than delivering an absorbing straight, narrative about its two central characters, Jenkins movie is itself caught on jagged vignettes of the lives affected by its central drama. Whilst the will-they, won’t they succeed plot will certainly hold you to the end, it’s the movie’s incidental portraits that fill out its compassion and understanding. None more is this further typified than in Regina King’s later, desperate scene with Emily Rios.
Awash with a rich palette that veers dangerously away from the grittiness of its subject, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ ultimately becomes a slightly muddied. With no shocks, or doubt cast on any of its characters, the movie’s tension rests solely on the outcome of the main plot and the injustice that has brought it about. However after a while that becomes a long, dramatic note to sustain. Whilst elegantly framed and handsomely set with a series of strong performances, the insights of James Baldwin’s razor-sharp intellect here feel a little blunted.
Not to be misunderstood, Barry Jenkins has delivered a movie that does indeed talk. Couched in the incidental performances of its ensemble, it speaks of love triumphing over all, and the imperative for it to endure in spite of a nation’s reluctancy to change. However to see and hear the author James Baldwin in his prime, I would still urge you to seek him out in the excellent documentary ’I Am Not Your Negro’.
As prefaced in the movie, Baldwin states that, whilst Beale Street is in New York, the situation it describes is emblematic of black experience across all of America. The fact that this movie exists alone, intact with its own voice is a triumph, even if the author’s articulate rage is not so much in evidence.