If Beale Street Could Talk

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/03/19 10:50:18

"Barry Jenkins continues to make extraordinary movies."
5 stars (Awesome)

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is the sort of film that announces in the first couple of minutes that it's got a chance to be special and then never lets the audience down. Writer/director Barry Jenkins builds a warm cocoon of love around the viewers and characters, enough to make the less perfect examples shock, a bit, as well as remind one that sometimes you need that powerful love to counter pervasive hate. A character all but says as much at one point, and while that moment is not quite so polished as the rest of the film, you can't exactly fault it for having a character see what's going on.

The two young lovers are Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), respectively 19 and 22, close since childhood, with marriage seeming like a natural next step though they're confident and certain enough in their love not to need it as validation. It will not be as easy as it has been, though - Fonny has been arrested for a rape despite his having Tish and their friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) as alibis, and Tish is pregnant. Her parents (Regina King & Colman Domingo) and sister (Teyonah Parris) are happy for her, though Fonny's family, by and large, is not, putting the onus for trying to mount a defense and free Fonny on Tish and her family.

A different filmmaker might take James Baldwin's novel, see the plot about the falsely-accused man, and fashion it into something more linear, with a courtroom climax, dogged pursuit, and more indignant examinations of the lengths to which members of the white establishment will go to lock Fonny up for petty reasons. That's not Jenkins, though; both of his previous features have been about experiencing extended moments in a life, with the shift that happens as a result the product of the characters' self-discovery. Here, he tells the story of Tish and Fonny along two separate tracks, with the events leading up to his arrest not necessarily in order, and in doing so he makes the film a story of what love can be rather than just how Tish's love saves and strengthens Fonny; their love belongs to each of them, and as a result Tish never feels reduced to a useful rock for Fonny to hang onto or the reason why he attracts attention. It's a constant, and it can make the switching between time periods feel less like viewing cause and effect than alternate realities.

The roots of the characters' challenges are the same in both, and that pervasiveness is the background of the film - the roadblocks, harassment, the fear of incarceration. Jenkins, like Baldwin, allows for little bits of decency to break through, even in this mid-twentieth-century setting always playing as a bit of a surprise without seeming strange, while frustration becomes overwhelming even if it can't be allowed to be. The story is a testament to quiet strength, given form by Tish's narration, which sounds brittle despite the fact that, when she is bowed, it is almost entirely because of the inescapable biology of pregnancy. There are moments of empathy for even potential that filmmaker Barry Jenkins could have avoided had he chosen to do so and make the story simpler, and though they often precede a character disappearing, there's something true and profound to that: You may fight fiercely for your cause, but you don't fight other victims.

The cast is terrific as well. KiKi Layne and Stephan James make Tish and Fonny glow with love for each other (aided by costumers who dress them as a sunny day in the middle of an overcast world), and capture their fears as well. Layne is placed at the center, and makes Tish's growth an impressive sight, youthful nervousness slowly being replaced with wariness, her voice-over going from wistful to wise as the film goes on. James lets the viewer see Fonny pulled between the bliss that being with Tish brings to the fear he has of much of the rest of the world, with Jenkins making sure that James has a chance to plant ideas in the audience's head about what jail can do or the tension in his family before making it clear later on. The rest are precise and focused, giving their scenes exactly what they need while still feeling like fools who have full lives behind the frame. Regina King is especially great throughout as Tish's mother, and Brian Tyree Henry shows up for five or ten minutes that could be a fine short film on their own and gives the audience complex feelings about his absence the rest of the way. It's a genuinely terrific ensemble, deployed where they can have the most powerful effect.

That effect is empathetic in a way that seems rare. I cannot speak to how much the film resonates with the African-American audiences who would be closer to its circumstances than one such as myself, but it's a measure of just how good everybody involved is that the film is able to communicate so very well.

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