Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Moving and beautifully filmed, “If Beale Street Could Talk” shares a representative story about love and injustice.

James Baldwin was one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century, openly addressing the unjust treatment of African Americans throughout his novels. Released in December 2018, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a film based on Baldwin’s 1974 book of the same name. Despite the fact that Baldwin wrote this story 44 years ago, its social commentary on discrimination and flaws in the American justice system sadly still remains relevant to this day. With a tear-jerking soundtrack, intensely personal cinematography, and a cast of talented actors, “If Beale Street Could Talk” revisits a story that is representative of too many individuals.

The film opens with a scene of a young black couple walking down a New York City street hand-in-hand. They aren’t speaking, but it is evident from their body language and lingering glances that they are deeply in love. This moment of peace is fleeting, though, as the next scene reveals that the man in the opening sequence, Alonzo, or “Fonny” (Stephan James), has been imprisoned. Tish (KiKi Layne), his girlfriend, is visiting him in jail. Through the telephone and glass separating the prisoners from their loved ones, she tells him that she’s pregnant with their child. The audience then follows Tish’s journey of navigating pregnancy as a single black mother in the early 1970s: telling her parents, facing scrutiny from Fonny’s mother and sister, and having to work through her ninth term in order to support her unborn child. On top of this already difficult arrangement, Tish struggles to free Fonny, who has been falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman he had never even met prior to his arrest. Since Tish was with Fonny the night the rape occurred, in a completely different neighborhood than where the woman was attacked, the couple knows that a deeper issue underlies this false accusation. The question then becomes: Why was Fonny accused? More important, will Tish be able to convince a justice system all too willing to paint Fonny as a convenient perpetrator that he is, in fact, innocent?

What truly makes “If Beale Street Could Talk” an impactful film is the cast’s powerful acting. When watching the film, viewers get the sense that each of the characters could be people that they know. Each actor exhibits emotions of love, frustration, acceptance, and pain through their expressions, body language, and speech. Layne’s acting as Tish creates the persona of a strong, determined young woman in love, but also interlays this with confusion and uncertainty. In this way, Layne creates a truly relatable character, allowing the audience to not only support her in her struggles but also feel the vast array of emotions experienced in every scene. Since Tish is the narrator and main character of the film, her performance sets a standard and in turn influences the rest of the cast. While Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), responds to Tish’s struggles with similar outrage and sadness for Fonny, King’s body language makes it clear that Sharon’s main concern is for her daughter. In each of her scenes, King’s interactions with the characters convey that Tish inherited her determined spirit from her mother. King carries her character’s strength through exhibitions of motherly love, supporting her daughter in everything even when things seem bleak. The interactions between Tish and Sharon indicate that one of this film’s goals is to parallel their mother-daughter relationship with the main love story between Tish and Fonny, highlighting how love can exist in multiple forms.

It is evident that the solidarity among female characters is a focus of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” but it is worth mentioning that the male characters involved also clearly share messages of love and support. Tish’s father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), and Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), instantly bond over the fact that they will share a grandchild. They tirelessly work toward raising enough money to afford a lawyer for Fonny, expressing how their priorities are making sure their families are well-fed and happy. Joseph supports Tish just as much as her mother does, cradling Tish’s head through bouts of pregnancy-related pain and nausea. Moreover, Fonny’s persistent love for Tish allows a truly heart-wrenching romance story to unfold. Throughout the film, Tish remembers the moments that led up to Fonny’s arrest, and in these glimpses of memory, the audience is able to watch them fall in love with each other. Stephan James’ performance in these scenes suggests more than his character says, utilizing body language and lingering glances to create a realistic persona of a young man deeply in love. Fonny cares for Tish in a way that is passionate to be sure, but more than that, he remains appreciative of who she is as a person. Fonny respects Tish, and even though he struggles with the fact that he can’t be there for her in the way that a boyfriend typically can, their interactions continually reveal that no glass or bars could ever truly separate them.

All of these characters are further realized through the personal style of the cinematography. Whenever Fonny and Tish look at each other, the camera takes turns focusing on each of their faces. By utilizing this first-person perspective, viewers are able to see through Tish’s eyes when Fonny looks at her and then switch point-of-view to see Tish through Fonny’s gaze. Additionally, due to the camera’s placement, viewers repeatedly feel as if they are watching the plot unfold not as an omniscient observer, but rather as an onlooker present in the room. The events that transpire in each scene happen in real time as well, leading to the film to be slow in some moments while still maintaining a realistic feeling. This style is lended further emotion by the film’s tender orchestral soundtrack. Most of the characters’ developments take place during moments of silence, and to heighten the impact of these moments, a predominantly string orchestra slowly and passionately plays. Throughout the film, their music swells and softens as needed for the plot’s current moment. This music allows the viewer to simply feel the moment before moving on to the next plot point.

Overall, “If Beale Street Could Talk” remains a worthwhile and important story regardless of how much time has passed between its original publication and the film. It sheds light on the struggles of many young black people during the time of the civil rights movement and remains sadly relevant for many more individuals today. This film highlights how discrimination can and often does subvert justice, and reveals that these events disrupt not only the lives of its victims, but those who care about them as well. Yet this film also offers messages of hope and support, sharing how even through the most difficult of times, love will persist.

Grade: A
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo
Director: Barry Jenkins
Rated: R
Release Date: December 25, 2018

Image courtesy of IMDb