By Andrea Thompson
Anyone who doubted that Barry Jenkins could still astound after the breathtaking “Moonlight” will have to eat their words after seeing “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which runs the gamut of emotions. Much like “Moonlight,” it’s essentially a love story between star-crossed lovers. In that film, the lovers were thwarted by societal norms that manifested as homophobia, which made any public expression of love unthinkable. In “Beale Street,” 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) are separated by a racist system intent on punishing black men for everything and nothing, or perhaps simply for existing.
When Tish and Fonny find themselves caught up in this system in 1970s New York City, “Beale Street” becomes just as noteworthy for what it doesn’t show as what it chooses to. We first see Fonny and Tish simply free and in love, firmly committed to each other. We never see Fonny’s arrest, but we do see him in jail, with Tish telling him she’s pregnant and committed to freeing him, far before we learn that Fonny has been imprisoned for rape. We also never spend much time with Fonny’s white lawyer, who is at first baffled, then angry about how his concern for his client isolates him from his peers and the higher ups. In any other film, his story would take center stage, with the Benevolent White Man getting woke and proving he’s one of the good ones by taking on the system to get justice.
But James Baldwin, who wrote the novel the film is based on, has never been interested in pulling his punches on the atrocities the American system not only allows to happen, but actively encourages. And Barry Jenkins, who also adapted the screenplay, is committed to asking questions that are just as relevant in 2018 as they were in the 70s when “Beale Street” takes place. So many elements of the story tells will be sadly familiar. There’s a large amount of holes in the process that led to Fonny’s arrest which leaves little doubt of his innocence, but are nevertheless still not enough to surmount the obstacles between Fonny and freedom. Tish also has her own obstacles to face, what with Fonny’s deeply religious mother and sisters disapproving of their relationship, with their dislike only deepening once they learn of her pregnancy. Shockingly, Fonny’s mother even goes so far as to curse Tish’s womb and child.
Thankfully, Tish’s family and Fonny’s father are far more accepting of the impending birth, with the Rivers family essentially adopting Fonny, then quickly becoming his champions as they struggle to free him before his child is born. Sometimes the obstacles to Fonny living his life seem unbearably large, the system casually, unthinkingly cruel in its eagerness to grind up not only Fonny, but others. (One of the film’s most memorable scenes features Brian Tyree Henry of “Atlanta” quietly ruminating on what he witnessed in prison.) However, “Beale Street” is not content to dwell on the horrors of the past in order to reassure us that we’ve reached a place of greater safety. It isn’t just Fonny and Tish’s love story that shines brighter, it is love itself, an emotion the film reveres for its power to provide a place of safety in the midst of the hell we so often inflict on others.
In the case of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” it becomes the salve to all the wounds that are inflicted. Fonny’s family is dysfunctional, but Tish’s has a closeness that is able to provide a loving home and refuge. After Tish and Fonny’s first tender, touching lovemaking scene, we learn the story of his arrest. There are flashback to the future they were on the verge of building together juxtaposed with efforts to grab it back. All of Jenkins’s influences are on full display, with his beautiful splashes of color, and camera work designed to bring out the best in a cast whose collective skill is nothing short of impeccable.
If the film falters slightly, it’s only when some of Baldwin’s prose doesn’t quite translate as well to the screen, or the fact that the film has a more definite, and thus slightly different ending to the book, both of which are more a limitation of a medium rather than the filmmakers. If the love onscreen is of the type we wish we all had, be it between the lovers themselves or the family that becomes their support system, then the obstacles we know await them are of the kind that are increasingly refusing to be ignored.