If Beale Street Could Talk

This is one of those films where the trailer contains the film’s highlights. When I saw it I thought, ‘Yes please, this looks great – and it’s based on a James Baldwin novel’. And it’s directed by Barry Jenkins who won Best Picture with Moonlight. A lot to live up to.

Stephan James as Fonny and KiKi Layne as Tish star in Barry Jenkins’ IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

In many ways this is a much more traditional piece of film-making, with a conventional love-story and miscarriage of justice as its main themes. There is still some jumping around the time-lines (something Jenkins said was challenging when writing the screenplay as the non-linear interior voices of the characters are hard to translate to the big screen), but on the whole it is easy to follow. Tish, played by luminous newcomer KiKi Layne, and Fonny, a dashingly handsome Stephan James, were brought up like brother and sister; suddenly they realise their bond has blossomed into a deep love and they plan to spend the rest of their lives together. But it is not to be.

Fonny is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison; Tish discovers that she is pregnant and is determined to get him set free before the baby arrives. One of the best scenes is when Tish’s parents invite Fonny’s folks round to tell them the news. The two fathers are old pals and are happy to crack open the brandy, but the mothers are diametrically opposite, with Fonny’s being a devout teetotal Christian and Sharon (Regina King) an archetypal strong woman, tolerant and supportive of her girls. A slanging match ensues, all the more poignant as it’s the only humour in the film. From here on it the mood darkens.

Jenkins draws his characters finely. There is a tremendous and tender rapport between Tish and Fonny, often achieved through looks and gestures, and few words. Similarly Tish and her mother Sharon’s empathetic bond is revealed when Tish admits her pregnancy: we know from the body language her mother had already guessed and is there for her; a support which extends to trying to prove Fonny’s innocence in another fine dramatic set-piece, confronting the accuser. King shines as Sharon with a quiet and dignified performance which has earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination – having already scooped the Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award. Is the Oscar on its way?

As with many US films of the moment (thinking Vice here), despite the 1970’s setting, Jenkins is telling us that little has changed in relationships between black and white Americans. Here is Tish, trying to make money for the appeal by working on a perfume counter and here is a creepy white man taking a long lingering sniff of the scent on her hand. The black customers are much more respectful.

Jenkins is a political film-maker and the themes of social injustice sprinkle the movie; from the sickening lament by Fonny’s friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) of his time in prison, to the bad hand that the rape victim has been dealt. It is no wonder that she is prepared to pick out Fonny in a line-out. She is too battered by living in America to care who it was. As the strap lines says, ‘Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street.,’ where institutionalised racism is rife.

There is so much to love about this film: the performances, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the emotion and the quiet dignity of the continuing struggle for justice. But for me it is more a film buff’s film, with its arty direction, long takes and two-hour duration. It just didn’t grab me as it did all the other critics.

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