If Beale Street Could Talk
US (2018) Dir. Barry Jenkins
Racism and abuse of power that often goes hand in hand with it never ceases to shock, perhaps more so as it continues to occur to this day. Perhaps it is fortunate modern technology and social media can often help right some wrongs, but it wasn’t always the case as prejudice and corruption ruled behind closed doors in years past.
Set in the 1970’s New York, young couple Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are expecting a baby, news which is welcomed by Tish’s family but not by everyone in Fonny’s family. The caveat to this announcement is that Fonny is currently in jail on a rape charge which he didn’t commit and his accuser Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) has since fled the country, leaving the corrupt prosecution with an open and shut case.
Keen to clear Fonny’s name, the entire Rivers family work hard to earn the money to pay their attorney Hayward (Finn Wittrock) to track Victoria down, while he tries to get an interview Fonny’s friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), the one man who can provide Fonny with an alibi, but as a current parolee, is conveniently being held by the police on another trumped up charge.
For his follow up to his Oscar winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins adapts the 1974 novel by prominent black author James Baldwin, a 45-year-old work that is still chillingly relevant today. Yet, as much as the discrimination against black people is a core theme, If Beale Street Could Talk is very much a love story, telling of the unwavering devotion of two childhood friends managing to take that friendship all the way to its logical conclusion and never missing a beat.
Certainly, Fonny being incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit is a fairly hefty obstacle to overcome but it is to the credit of Tish and her family that he was never short of support, love, and belief in his innocence. It would have been easy for both parties to give up on each other, but the central message of love conquering all is as pervasive as it is persuasive.
Jenkins takes the unusual approach of presenting the story in a non-linear manner, happy to jump between timelines with nary a care for chronology, which might irritate some viewers. For example, the film opens with Tish and Fonny walking down the street ready to embark on the next step of their journey before cutting to Tish visiting Fonny in prison to inform him of her pregnancy.
Tish nervously tells her family – mother Sharon (Regina King), father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) – who rejoice at the news, though the mood is ruined when they invite the Hunt family over to tell them. Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) is overjoyed but his pious wife Alice (Aunjanue Ellis) declares the child cursed for being born out of wedlock, and is shocking slapped by Frank to silence her.
In case anyone wondered why it befell the Rivers family to fight Fonny’s corner, there is your answer, Frank being the lone exception, teaming up with Joseph to sell stolen goods. The remainder of the film flits between continuing this arc and recalling the prior struggles of Tish and Fonny, illustrating just how deep their love and devotion is.
As alluded to earlier, racism is a prominent cause for headaches, be it landlords refusing to rent to black people to Fonny nearly being arrested by a bigoted white police officer (Ed Skrein) for saving Tish from a white groper, prevented by the (white) shopkeeper coming to Fonny’s defence. This explains how Fonny ended up being charged with rape, though this would have felt more significant had we not already heard about it earlier.
Balance is rare when discussing the bigotry, the only few beacons of tolerance being the aforementioned shopkeeper and a Jewish landlord (Dave Franco), who rents them an apartment because he enjoys seeing people in love. Otherwise, the narrative is that all white men are predatory towards black women, whilst the black men are being fitted up on bogus or exaggerated criminal charges.
No doubt, some will view this as trenchant anti-white America rhetoric via covert verbal fustigation. As justified as this opprobrium is, Jenkins devotes maybe one scene too many on the subject when so many other moments delineate this sufficiently enough. As I said earlier, it’s a issue that sadly will never cease and Jenkins clearly felt the need to reiterate this, though it is only half the story, albeit undeniably congruent.
With the other half of the story being Tish and Fonny, it is impossible not to feel for them and share their anger and frustration at the injustice foisted upon them because of the colour of their skin. By extending this to the entire Rivers family the domino effect of this reinforces how dangerously toxic bigotry and corruption is, the heartbreak and tragedy being a needlessly shared experience.
Making this easier to digest, are the performances which are wholly captivating across the board. Best Supporting Actress nominee Regina King is a formidable presence as Sharon, her showdowns with Fonny’s mother and Victoria in particular are powerful. Newcomer Kiki Layne is another exciting star prospect, commanding every scene as Tish grows from shy young girl in love to a woman battling for that love.
Jenkins directs with taut precision, manifesting through the visuals, gloriously shot and composed but palpably austere. The script naturally doesn’t allow for much humour thus at times the atmosphere feels sterile, but the cast are able to counter this by exuding personality and bringing the requisite tension through their performances as opposed to leaving it to the mood.
If the random timeline jumps aren’t off putting, the occasional longueurs tend to make things drag a little, but where If Beale Street Could Talk earns its plaudits is in the stellar performances and rich characterisations providing a compelling, moving, and timelessly provocative viewing experience.