New York City isn’t the diverse utopia many think it is. If there is any system that shows just how broken things are, it is the city’s police force where “protect and serve” is on a circumstantial based on the color of your skin. This is among the many themes in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, which is in good hands with director Barry Jenkins.
This impressive sophomore achievement from Jenkins lets go of the blue and purple surrealism of Moonlight, for more earth tones and a naturalistic approach to young love, Blackness, and justice in post-Jim Crow America. There is no question the work of writer and activist James Baldwin is timeless and timely because no matter how long ago he wrote his books, essays, and social commentary, his words are always right on time. The movie also captures the essence of Baldwin’s message of love, family, and an unfair and broken justice system.
Beale Street is a fairly straight forward story that follows young lovers Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), soulmates who grew up together in 1970s Harlem. They are tested several times as Fonny’s family disapproves of their relationship as Tish ends up pregnant. The two decide they will be better on their own, so they move away from their parents to start their own life together. Unfortunately, their fledgling romance takes a turn for the worse when Fonny is accused of rape and thrown in prison. It’s a race against time for the families of both of them to find evidence that will exonerate him before Fonny’s mental and physical state begins to deteriorate beyond the point of no return.
Barry Jenkins captures the human experience like no other. He chooses the talent for his projects with precision and adding all the actors where they can display their strongest traits. From the leads to the supporting cast, they carry out this passionate and transcendent screenplay with confidence. Everything is so organic and nothing is forced. He breaks down a side of Black Family Dynamics rarely seen from Hollywood. Look at Tish and her family unit. They portray an astonishing display of love and support especially with the circumstances of Fonny being imprisoned and Tish being a teenage mother. So often in Hollywood, Black families are seen as toxic, cold, and unforgiving, like Fonny’s religious maternal family.
Colman Domingo as Joseph Rivers brings an element of love and tenderness to the role of Tish’s father. Kiki Lanye is confident and comfortable in the role, with none of those awkward jitters that comes with being a fairly new actor. The relationship between Tish and her sister Earnestine (Teyonah Parris) is a close sisterhood with no sense of sibling rivalry — just one sister in support of another. No one judges Tish for her willingness to keep her child and they all rally behind her decision with all of them eager to play an active role in her happiness especially the family matriarch Sharon Rivers (Regina King) whose supports her daughter’s decision to have the baby and aids her through the pregnancy. Sharon’s resilience propels her to fly to Puerto Rico to confront Fonny’s accuser Victoria Rodgers (Emily Rios), thus looking for any answers that will hopefully absolve the Father of her grandchild. King plays the role with a quiet strength that lets the audience know her character grounded, and will not be moved.
If Beale Street Could Talk will take you on a journey of visual ecstasy with narrative beats that create a solid adaptation of some emotional material. This is how Barry Jenkins works his audience — he gives full body and soul to his work which is something that is wholly missing in cinema. He understands that beauty and pain sometimes co-exist but always gives the audience hope. Beale Street is a movie that reaffirms why I love movies. This isn’t just another important ‘Black’ film or love story. This is a vital piece of film history. Don’t let the many think pieces distract you. Run, don’t walk to see this film!