If Beale Street Could Talk Review
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) | Dir. Barry Jenkins | Cast: Colman Domingo, KiKi Layne, Regina King, Stephan James | Writers: Barry Jenkins (written for the screen by), James Baldwin (based on the book by)
The late James Baldwin was a master novelist. Barry Jenkins himself said choosing to adept one of his stories - albeit one of his less honoured works - in If Beale Street Could Talk could have gone disastrously wrong. At the time of making, he feared ruining Baldwin’s legacy for the next generation and those who don’t know his work - unacceptable for the now oscar winner.
His retelling of If Beale Street Could Talk should not be taken for granted. The result of his diligent work proves Jenkins himself is a master storyteller and a master filmmaker (if you needed further evidence after moonlight).
In this cruel chaos we call life, it’s very easy to feel helpless and destitute. Some more than others suffer greater hardships under systematic injustices and overt maltreatment and discrimination. Yet, moments of pure euphoria manage to find their way to us and, for that brief moment, everything can be okay. If Beale Street Could Talk takes this pretence and looks at it through the African American experience of the 70s. It’s a heartbreaking ordeal - still resonant today - but I found myself smiling through it all, willing to go through it all over again. This because Jenkins is able to make this story universal through his visceral filmmaking.
The opening shots are quotes from James Baldwin over black, explaining that what happens on Beale Street can happen anywhere. We then meet Tish (Kiki Layne) in 1970s Harlem, wide-eyed and optimistic for the future. She is expecting and awaits the return of Fonny (Stephan James) so they can move into a loft and start a family.
The first few sequences are pure unadulterated joy, despite learning that Fonny is in jail awaiting trial and Tish’s mother and sisters-in-law rue having let their son/brother near the teenager. Jenkins achieves this balance with enthralling dialogue while also giving each character on screen distinctive personalities that oppose and complement each other as the story plays out. We soon learn that the story is playing out in a non-linear fashion and the film proceeds to show how volatile our loving couple’s life truly is. Beale Street makes it easy to direct your angst to the obvious protagonists of the film and presents itself as a feel-good drama at face value this way.
This feel-good sensibility is facilitated by the resolve or cooling down of a situation - justice being served or a seemingly unredeemable character seeing the error of his ways - again expertly done through Jenkins’ dialogue, shot choices and pace setting. But what makes the bad guys feel bad things and Tish’ and Fonny’s love and optimism so astounding is the idea of white America being a character, breathing its neck down all our characters throughout.
In the case of Fonny’s trial, it was easy for him to be picked out by a victim because they thought he looked bad and the policeman didn’t like his attitude and was so willing to take him in. Finding a flat from a landowner is difficult because to the landlord, it was statistically unlikely for a young black couple to earn enough money for one. White America for some audiences may be a benign buzzword but for others, it represents a version of systematic injustices and overt maltreatment and discrimination. That is hard to translate artistically on screen and Jenkins does it like it is second nature.
What I (and I strongly assume Barry Jenkins) implore you to realise however is the idea that black people can have normal relationships and lives despite their situations. The skill of crafting characters so loving, so normal in a world so dark makes for an emotionally sweetening watch.
The movie never leaves you moping. The score elates you and Tish and Fonny’s relationship thaws away the icy pessimism to the very end. If you’re willing, you can look at If Beale Street Could Talk as a powerful inditement of America’s treatment of people of colour through the years. No one would blame you if all you could think about is Fonny’s smile.