A film review by Craig J. Koban January 31, 2019

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK jjj
   

2018, R, 119 mins.

 

KiKi Layne as Clementine "Tish" Rivers  /  Stephan James as Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt  /  Regina King as Sharon Rivers  /  Colman Domingo as Joseph Rivers  /  Teyonah Parris as Ernestine Rivers  /  Michael Beach as Frank Hunt  /  Aunjanue Ellis as Mrs. Hunt  /  Ebony Obsidian as Adrienne Hunt  /  Dominique Thorne as Sheila Hunt  /  Diego Luna as Pedrocito  /  Finn Wittrock as Hayward  /  Ed Skrein as Officer Bell  /  Emily Rios as Victoria Rogers  /  Pedro Pascal as Pietro Alvarez  /  Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel Carty  /  Dave Franco as Levy

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the novel by James Baldwin

 

 

 

Writer/director Barry Jenkins previously made the Academy Award winning Best Picture MOONLIGHT, a small scale and budgeted, but profoundly moving and beautifully told drama about the evolution of a homosexual black man's life, told via multiple time periods and with multiple actors playing said character.  In all fairness, it was a gutsy and outside of the box selection from the Academy (which is often overshadowed by the award envelope controversy that highlighted its win that year), but it helped cement Jenkins as a major filmmaking artist with a uniquely impressionistic aesthetic all his own.   

He has followed up his critically lauded effort now with IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, a period romance drama based on James Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name, which chronicled a love story set in Harlem during the early 1970's.  The title here is a direct reference to Beale Street in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, which, in turn, is referenced in the film's opening title cards, which reads, “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”  

What this is trying to say, I think, is that the African American experience over the years and throughout history is a shared experience, much like saying that, metaphorically, Beale Street runs through every city.  Jenkins' film adaptation is an ambitious one and replete with his trademark stylistic trappings.  It's also more than a love story; there are also themes that touch on the strength of family ties as well as the racial injustices that African Americans face, especially when wrongfully incarcerated, which adds an added legal thriller element to the proceedings.  IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is a gorgeous production and filled with memorable performances, but it lacks the headstrong confidence and discipline of MOONLIGHT (pacing and momentum curtail its overall effectiveness), but Jenkins' new drama still contains moments of remarkable potency throughout that help its rough edges. 

 

 

The core of the film is in the relationship between its two main African American characters, both of whom have known each other for decades and essentially grew up together and eventually found love.  If anything, their bond and union is kind of effortless and natural: everything just seemed to put them in the right place and right time in life.  The pair in question are Tish Rivers, the 19 year old protagonist and narrator of the film (Kiki Layne) and boyfriend turned husband Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) and they seem like an inseparable couple right from the get-go.  Tish becomes pregnant with his child, which leads to some awkward moments spilling the news to her larger family, including her mother (Regina King) and father (Coleman Domingo), but both embrace the news with loving arms.  Fonny's family, on the other hand, doesn't share the same feelings of euphoric joy as Tish's, seeing as they don't have much respect for Tish and view her pregnancy as a product of sin and a lack of self control. 

Beyond family strife, something else rears its ugly head for both of these families: Poor Fonny has been falsely arrested on a rape charge, one that he steadfastly denies.  Unfortunately for him, the lethal combination of a vitriolic racist cop and the victim (with a questionably hazy and unreliability of accurately identifying the real culprit) led to Fonny's arrest, and things look even more grim when his lawyer (Finn Wittrock) can't locate the victim for potential cross examination in court (she fled the country and her whereabouts are unknown).  Mournfully, the chances of any type of an acquittal for Fonny seems slim to none, and with the prospects of going to jail for the rest of his life by what will most likely be an all white jury, Fonny and Tish begin to prepare for the worse. 

Jenkins creates this compelling dynamic between somewhat rose colored and idyllic flashbacks of this couple courting, falling in love, having sex, and then buying their first home with the darker realities of Fonny trying to clear his good name while being trapped within a legal and societal system that do grave injustices to African Americans of the era daily.  There's the initial excitement in the film witnessing Tish and Fonny's relationship begin to simmer and mature, and the early sections of the story have a dreamlike allure of a romantic fantasy.  But then Jenkins pulls the rug from under viewers and cements us within the larger and more damning story thread of Fonny being dealt up a seriously raw deal of overt discrimination, which led to his arrest.  We have a somewhat haunting scene early in the film between Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) that begins as a nonchalant and carefree sequence between BFFs over a drink and then plunges down into Daniel's revelations about the true horrors that black people face while in prison and how that has riddled him with absolute hopelessness.  This crucial scene helps to cement Fonny's nightmarish legal predicament later on, being already seemingly caged up by an unfair system of intolerance that locks up black people even when a preponderance of evidence exists to prove their innocence. 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK contains several bravura scenes that Jenkins and the actors all work together to craft small little observational masterpieces.  The precise instance when the shy and reserved Tish informs her mother about her pregnancy have a quiet power and comes together so organically it never feels scripted.  I also liked the casual manner that Jenkins shows one specific night of sexual passion between the couple, which is authentically raw and pitch perfectly executed.  Even smaller scenes, like, for example, showing Tish and Fonny trying to rent their first apartment in a neighborhood that would rather not have their kind has a sense of stark immediacy that speaks volumes towards the larger themes of racial intolerance and feeling trapped by it.  The notion that Fonny and Trish's anxieties are, of course, universal to the African American experience, but there is a universality to them as well; seeing this couple struggle to deal with money, family, a baby on the way, and a slew of other obstacles all conspiring together is something that just about any couple viewing the film can empathize with. 

IF BEALE STREET STREET COULD TALK also feels like a novel come to life, which is fitting, and Jenkins' choice to keep the story a first person one narrated by Tish allows for not only further character development, but it also makes this story hers and hers alone to tell.  The performances are crucial here as well, and newcomer Kiki Lane - making her feature film debut - is astonishingly genuine in her sweet, heartfelt, but vulnerable performance that straddles between ardent love for her husband and a fierce determination to see his name cleared and honor restored.  Stephan James' work here is also stellar, showing him play a man that has to outwardly project calm resiliency that won't bow down to anyone or anything when, inside, he knows he's being pathetically screwed by the law.  And the spectacular Regina King rounds off the film's powerful acting trio as Tish's mother: She's in one of the film's most painfully harrowing scenes when she confronts the rape victim face to face and begs for her to reconsider her false charges, which she doesn't acquiesce to.  It's a devastating scene to endure, and King makes a strong claim for Oscar consideration in it. 

And let's not forget about Jenkins' supremely on point direction here as well, as he and cinematographer James Laxton not only create a sense of historical veracity in their presentation of early 70s New York, but they also make the film have an expressionistic quality throughout, oftentimes visually approximating how memories work.  The consummate craftsmanship on display in IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is one of its strengths, but the free flowing nature of Jenkins' direction and the manner the film unfolds props up some of my problems with it.  There are times when IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK feels more like a series of disconnected vignettes sort of strung together than it does a well oiled and laid out full bodied narrative.  There's a play-like vibe in abundance here, which is not altogether a bad thing, but I found that the manner with which scenes unfolded at times really stymied the forward momentum of the piece.  IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK sometimes suffers from glacial pacing and its overall story unfolds slowly, perhaps too slowly at times.  The narrative ebbs and flows in and out from the past to the present and some moments seem to go on forever and without an ending, which may test the patience of many viewers, including myself.  IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK seems longer than its running time would suggest. 

My only regret with this film is that I wished I simply loved it more than I did.  It contains an embarrassment of performance riches and reiterates Jenkins as a fine of a cinematic craftsman as any working today.  That, and the story here wonderfully mixes the joys of first love with the painful spectacle of racial bigotry that threatens to derail it.  Still, I don't think that IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK had the same enduring impact on me as Jenkins' MOONLIGHT, and the former's somewhat ungainly structuring and narrative pacing just didn't completely work for me.  Still, Jenkins has lovingly tailor made an evocative and timely adaptation of the source material; this is a film made with a social conscience that taps into the problems of the world of yesteryear that, as unfortunate as it seems, still holds up a mirror to contemporary ills. 

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