If Beale Street Could Talk
2018, R, 117 min. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Aunjanue Ellis, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 21, 2018
Fonny and Tish are not just in love. They are inseparable. From the first moment they walk into frame, there is an effortlessness about the way they are entwined. Not just hand in hand, but the way the colors of their clothes are coordinated – not purposefully, but in a subtle drift of yellows and greens and blues, like their souls and selves are perpetually interlinked.
It's an extraordinary establishing moment, near silently building a sense of indefatigable love between the two. But exquisitely as Barry Jenkins and and his constant collaborator, indie cinematographer of choice James Laxton (Camp X-Ray, The Myth of the American Sleepover), catch this quiet bliss, the contentment cannot last. This is 1970s Harlem, and Fonny (James) is seemingly locked on the inevitable path that will trap all young black men of the era. It doesn't matter that he's a talented young artist, or that Tish (Layne) is pregnant with their child. Institutional racism, an unfair criminal system, and the raw injustice of the world will tear at them.
For his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Jenkins has adapted James Baldwin's searing 1974 indictment of America, If Beale Street Could Talk. While undoubtedly stirring similar social currents as BlacKkKlansman, there's more sadness here than rage, as the pair cling to each other in a world that will beat and beat and beat them down, and tears and tears and tears them apart. It is, as Baldwin described it, the work of an optimist at their most despairing.
While there is poetic grace, that's not to say that there's no didacticism. Like Baldwin, Jenkins has a rigorous sense of what is broken in society, that these two young lovers can be so cruelly divided. There's a dash of playwright Bertolt Brecht in the script's structure, a chapterlike feel built around major scenes, as each significant character gets a remarkable space to explore those issues. Yet Brecht's plays could take those breaks for those moments. In a film, that's a harder challenge, one Jenkins never quite surmounts. It's the difference between a structured album and a well-curated best-of: The power of individual moments and scenes is undeniable, but there's a stop-start sensation, exacerbated by the way characters have their moment and are never seen again.
Yet in those scenes there is majesty and humanity. The first set-piece – Tish telling her, and then Fonny's, family that she is pregnant – is extraordinary, as the Rivers and Hunt clans bond and clash (Regina King as Tish's mom, the warm and embracing Sharon Rivers, vs. Fonny's holy roller matriarch, played by Aunjanue Ellis, is as finely structured a fight as any stunt sequence in Mission: Impossible – Fallout). Equally, Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Henry) quietly shedding macho bravado to talk openly and honestly about their fear of being a victim of the cops and the courts is heartbreakingly resonant as when Baldwin wrote these characters. The lulls between these peaks rush by, and the elegance and heartbreak undoubtedly remain.