**** out of ****
(for strong language, nudity, and some sexual content)
Released: December 14, 2018 limited; expands December 25 and January
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Brian Tyree Henry, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Diego Luna,
Spike Lee confronts. Barry Jenkins laments.
Spike rages. Jenkins is a poet.
These directors the most powerful African-American filmmaking voices of their respective generations, but each examines the history of their community from very different angles, perspectives, and temperaments. In completely different ways, they both end up packing an undeniable power.
In 2018, their voices combined to scream and grieve, first in Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and now in Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, the follow-up to his Best Picture breakthrough Moonlight. It’s a staggering achievement of emotion, message, and craft, and it declares the Oscar-winner – whose films are of a very specific tone, style, and language – as one of the elite auteurs of our time.
If Beale Street Could Talk is artfully sentimental, nostalgic yet painful, and elegiac. Images by cinematographer James Laxton are colorful and lush, with art direction, costumes, and locations rich in period detail and design. It feels like a New York movie from the 1970s that it’s set in, despite being shot digitally, with a jazz score by Nicholas Britell that’s equal parts mournful and sanguine. As pure cinema, it feels as if commissioned by the Criterion Collection.
Based on the 1974 novel by African-American writer and civil rights icon James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk is sorrowfully relevant. Tish Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt are young lovers in Harlem. Best friends since childhood, now they’re soulmates.
But when a woman whom Fonny has never met accuses him of rape, he’s sent to jail as he awaits trial. The blissful future that Fonny and Tish had just begun to plan may become another tragic statistic in the historical prejudice suffered by African-American males in the U.S. justice system.
As compelling as these issues are in relation to contemporary hot button issues, Jenkins uses the them as points of entry into a deeper, more soulful contemplation of the African-American experience itself: its struggle, its identity, and its fight for agency against institutionalized racism. What degree of love does it really take to conquer hate and injustice?
But rather than being preachy, Jenkins makes it poetic. He fashions Fonny and Tish as “Adam & Eve” archetypes in an idyllic Harlem that becomes a fallen Garden, minority icons first venerated then cast out into a fallen America.
Their romance is innocent and idealized; even their awkward first-time making love isn’t hedonistic, it’s Edenistic. Not carnal, it’s giving and pure. Then a serpent tears it apart, and it’s an evil bigger than just one devil. Stephen James and Kiki Layne render tender, passionate, and heartbreaking turns as the couple, with Layne as the magnetic breakout.
Where Jenkins is particularly sensitive is in how he deals with this false accusation of rape. Here, he reveals his true empathy as an artist. To tell this kind of story in the #MeToo era – without pandering to current sensibilities in the throes of a raw cultural sea change – and not have it completely blow up in his face, that says something. It speaks to the level of compassion and insight that Jenkins has as a filmmaker, and a person.
In fact, Jenkins actually elicits our sympathy for the accuser. He does this by credibly indicting a court system that pits victim against victim, minority against minority. He wrestles with these issues and then, with his humanity, transcends them. The level of empathy displayed to both sides isn’t just the hallmark of a truly great artist, it’s also the key to the film’s elemental truths.
The story never veers into public protests, jailhouse clichés, or courtroom theatrics. Jenkins keeps events powerfully personal. He poignantly weaves touching anecdotes – from the couple’s apartment search, to police bigotry, to Fonny’s friend (Brian Tyree Henry, showcased in a key central scene) sharing the horrors of his two-year unjust incarceration – that speak to sweeping systemic corruptions.
Structuring the narrative back and forth between the near-past and agonizing present, Jenkins centers it from Tish’s point of view while taking plaintive detours to Fonny’s. He also employs author James Baldwin’s vivid words in voiceover. It’s a device I don’t inherently prefer, and would even be intrigued to watch this film without it, but it works here in lyrical ways. There’s a beauty to Baldwin’s prose, how they reveal thoughts, dreams, fears, and aspirations.
Through it all, Tish and Fonny struggle to keep hope alive. Tish ultimately needs to be strong enough for them both as Fonny’s hope fades, eroding with each passing day of a brutal unjust incarceration of his own.
We see the breadth of how African-Americans respond to these inequalities through the immediate families. Fonny’s bible-thumping mother only sees the wages of what she perceives as Fonny’s sins, while Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King, in a performance of inspiring resolve) serves as the supportive glue, a voice of moderation, wisdom, and unwavering (even sacrificial) conviction. If Tish is the beating heart of this story, King’s Sharon is the maternal soul.
The fathers unite out of paternal duty and preservation of legacy, determined to save their children – by any means, if necessary. Yes, their progeny is at stake, but it’s also emblematic of their yearning to safeguard an entire race, community, and culture.
Jenkins isn’t merely debating issues; he’s getting to the core of our humanity. And throughout his cinematic lament, there remains an unwavering beauty. It’s always there, deeply affecting, shaken yet unshakeable, and ascending – even in the bittersweet reality of the film’s final moment.
There isn’t a literal Beale Street in this story. It’s a symbolic nod to the one where Jazz was born in New Orleans. It’s a loud street, Baldwin says, in the novel’s text that Jenkins quotes on the opening title card. “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” Baldwin writes, “born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
In the artful hands and caring heart of Barry Jenkins, that legacy endures. It’s reverberates in a story born of its time, written by one of the most prophetic voices of that time, and it continues to challenge, resonate, and profoundly speak to us in our time. If Beale Street Could Talk is a vital addition to the canon of the African-American experience.