Tish and Fonny are very much in love. She is 19; he is 22. Just after he goes to jail for a crime he did not commit, she learns she is pregnant. Now she must figure out how to clear Fonny’s name so he can be there to help raise their child. This is the rough outline of If Beale Street Could Talk, a drama more about the lives of these people and their families. Specifically, it looks at them through the lens of the black experience. It is a moving, powerfully acted, well-directed production that never forces its points. Writer/director/producer Barry Jenkins, who was nominated for Best Director and won for Best Adapted Screenplay for Best Picture winner Moonlight, is gentle in adapting James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. It has such a strong and sure voice that some sections play as pure verbal and visual poetry.
This movie is a love story, a racially charged drama and a class-based family drama. The case is secondary to what it means for those involved. This is not a plot-based film, it is idea based. Tish and Fonny have known each other since they were little and just want to be together. What is trying to pull them apart are preconceived notions of what they are. There is the racially biased system that would see Fonny spend his life in prison, regardless of his innocence. Also opposing them is Fonny’s religious mother, who insists her son is way too good for Tish. Both of these assumptions could stand in the way of the young couple’s happiness.
Two of the best scenes highlight those conflicts. The first occurs early on, shortly after Tish finds out she is pregnant. Her parents invite Fonny’s family over so she can tell them the news. It is immediately clear these two families are completely different. Her parents are in love; his are unable to communicate with each other. Her sister is opinionated, but caring; his are arrogant and mean. The scene is filled with tension, though it is not built on suspense. Everyone reacts more or less as you would expect them to. What it shows is that Tish and Fonny’s love can overcome cultural divides, which exist even within their own community.
The second scene is much quieter. Fonny runs into an old friend and invites him home for drinks. The friend recently got released from jail. Their conversation turns to the seeming inevitability of a black man living his life behind bars. They feel like being black is treated as a crime. Once they get caught in the system, they will never be free. This is all the more poignant because the narrative is nonlinear. Knowing what fate awaits Fonny makes the injustice they are worried about sting all the more. Theirs is the viewpoint of a lot of men in their situation, not only when the movie takes place (the early 1970s), but even today.
As I understand it, If Beale Street Could Talk is very faithful to the source material. There is a lot of power in Baldwin’s dialogue and it is delivered with maximum impact by the cast. Stephan James and KiKi Layne (in her big screen debut) are the story’s focus as the young lovers. They are sympathetic and believable as a couple. They have several scenes together that are so sweet, everything else melts away and, for a moment, the movie is only about them.
Regina King is absolutely fantastic as Tish’s Mom. That character, and her performance, could have carried a movie by itself. Most of the supporting cast fits that description. The other actor that stood out to me was Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s recently incarcerated friend. This was a busy year for him (he was in seven movies as well as season two of Atlanta) and this is the perfect way to end it. He appears in just a single scene, but the look on his face as he talks about his life will stick with me.
Barry Jenkins structures If Beale Street Could Talk as a series of connected vignettes rather than a traditional narrative. That feels right for this material. It allows it to wander through these lives, catching moments of love, anger, joy and despair. By the end, I felt like I knew them, like I understood them. That is an impressive feat for a two hour movie, especially one that is predominantly a love story. It has so much to say while always keeping the personal at the forefront. This is a delicate film as well as a really good one.
4¼ out of 5
KiKi Layne as Tish River
Stephan James as Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt
Regina King as Sharon Rivers
Colman Domingo as Joseph Rivers
Teyonah Parris as Ernestine Rivers
Michael Beach as Frank Hunt
Aunjanue Ellis as Mrs. Hunt
Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel Carty
Directed and Written for the Screen by Barry Jenkins