REVIEW: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

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Barry Jenkins became a household name with his 2016 Best Picture winner “Moonlight”. Despite the film’s universal acclaim, I could never get in sync with its storytelling rhythm and felt it dropped off significantly in its second half. That’s certainly not the case with his follow-up feature “If Beale Street Could Talk”.

Adapted by Jenkins from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, “Beale Street” has a very distinct voice. It’s a movie filled with longing and not just between two lovers. There is also an ever-present longing for hope, peace, equality, justice. This longing is in every frame of Jenkins’ soulful film and you see it burning in the eyes of nearly every character we encounter.

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Jenkins begins his film by introducing us to Tish who is 19 and Fonny who is 22. Their opening gaze makes it clear that these inseparable childhood friends have fallen in love. They are two black kids in early 1970s Harlem with plenty of societal hurdles and a deck stacked against them. But in this early moment their love is all they see. In a very poignant way their simple yet central romance is the catalyst for everything else the film has to say.

The young couple’s world is turned upside down when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He is sent to prison while Tish discovers she is pregnant with their child. Jenkins elegantly maneuvers back-and-forth on his timeline, braiding together their challenges during Fonny’s incarceration with touching looks back at their lives as a couple subtly framed as memories more so than flashbacks.

Jenkins shows off an impressive knack for drawing a ton out of his characters, not just through his dialogue but even more so from his camera. Take relative newcomer KiKi Layne who plays Tish. She brings a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerability to her character. Layne’s earnest portrayal conveys an inherent goodness in Tish which Jenkins wisely locks in on. He does the same for Stephan James as Fonny. He’s gentlemanly and sincere; so full of life and love yet slowly being drained of hope with each passing day behind bars.

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Then there is the stellar supporting cast led by Regina King who is winning every award she’s nominated for. She plays Tish’s mother Sharon, a realist but also a loving encourager determined to help Fonny despite there being no easy road to justice. Colman Domingo is superb as Tish’s father, also a realist and equally compassionate, yet forced to help the kids in his own unique ways. Both performances offer up some of the year’s best supporting work.

I should also mention Brian Tyree Henry who appears in a key sequence midway through. He plays Fonny’s old friend Daniel who just got out of prison for a crime he also didn’t commit. In a bit of on-the-nose foreshadowing, Daniel shares his experience with Fonny almost like a prophet warning us of what’s to come. Obviousness aside, Jenkins allows their conversation to play out, probably a hair too long, but still in the way it needed to. And within the framework of their conversation, every word they express feels authentic and honest.

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Perhaps the most magnetizing sequence sees Tish and her parents inviting Fonny’s family over to break the news of her pregnancy. It’s tense and contentious from the start eventually bringing out thoughts of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. The scene is almost undone by Fonny’s belligerent and over-the-top mother (possibly Jenkins’ attempt at channeling Baldwin’s negative perception of religion). Still, you find yourself glued to every character and every exchange.

Barry Jenkins clearly has something to say about racial injustice, not just of the past but also how it still resonates today. It forms an ominous cloud that hangs over his entire film. But at its deepest core “Beale Street” isn’t a loud, angry social lecture. It’s an aching love story lusciously shot by Jenkins favorite James Laxton and accompanied by one of the year’s best scores from Nicholas Britell. The tragedy is in how this love is forever effected by a cold, prejudicial system. Tish’s burdened father once says “These are our children, and we gotta set them free.” This becomes our longing as well.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

25 thoughts on “REVIEW: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

  1. While I was not a fan of Moonlight at all – this one, while I still didn’t fall head over heels in love with, was better. Still looking for a movie that I LOVED this year and maybe I just haven’t seen it yet as I missed a lot of screenings. :/

    • I wasn’t big on Moonlight either. I did fall under this one’s spell. It’s a movie that I thought about a lot before I could figure out where I landed. It did cause me to shake up my ‘Top 20 of 2018’ post a bit.

  2. Having seen Moonlight before the end of last year (finally), it actually made me want to see this film even more as I’m just interested in what Barry Jenkins has to say as well as see if everything they’ve been saying about Regina King’s performance is true as I’m happy she’s getting some love.

    • This movie won me over to Jenkins. Wasn’t high on Moonlight but he shows off some REALLY strong chops here. As for King, she deserves the hype. In fact most of the performances here are really strong. It made me rethink my Top 20.

    • It really caught me off guard. I know it looked good, but I wasn’t high on Moonlight. This movie blew me away and I can’t wait to see it again.

  3. Great review! I’m really looking forward to this movie, I wasn’t a big fan of Moonlight but this looks much more like something I’d enjoy

  4. I’m glad you saw it! Such a great film. I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten the same buzz as Moonlight, but I guess that’s just how it goes sometimes. Will be interesting to see which way the Academy leans.

    • It is soooo good. I just couldn’t get in tune with Moonlight, especially its second half of it. I had no such problem here. Jenkins pulled me in from that stunning opening sequence. It really is a shame that it hasn’t gotten more attention. As you said, maybe the Academy will correct that.

  5. Gorgeous movie. Jenkins is a technical master. I found myself liking this movie, yet emotionally, found it a little weaker and not as heartachingly raw as Moonlight. Something about that movie I still haven’t forgot. Still, this is a sound feature.

    • That’s interesting because I was the exact opposite. I felt Moonlight lost all its steam after Ali disappeared. Looked great but flatlined for me. Never had that from Beale Street. For me the longing in this film was so powerful.

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