Barry Jenkins won the Best Picture Oscar two years ago for “Moonlight” – a film I admired, but did not love. I found it inconclusive, and hard to follow in spots. Now Jenkins has churned out “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. And while I won’t rank this one as my top picture of the year, I liked it better than “Moonlight.”
Tish and Fonny (whose real name is Alonzo) are childhood friends who develop a deep love for one another when she is in her late teens and he in his early 20s. Then Tish learns she is pregnant with their first child just after Fonny is sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. Where most modern-day screenplays would focus on the family’s efforts to free Fonny, Jenkins stays true to the source material – which concentrates on the love story and the family dynamics. Yes, Tish’s mother Sharon does fly to Puerto Rico to locate the accuser (who mysteriously leaves the country as the trial date approaches), but far more exertion is given to the pending child situation.
In the film’s best scene, Tish’s parents and older sister decide to share their joy of the news of their soon-to-be first grandchild with Fonny’s family. But the best of intentions are shattered when Fonny’s holier-than-thou mother blames Tish for their premarital sexual encounter. Physical confrontation follows, and the dynamics of “Beale Street” are on their way.
What follows is both an exercise in excellent filmmaking and an often subtle dig at the early ‘70s society that exiled black males to the fringes of society – a message Jenkins knows is still relevant today. In this regard, “Beale Street” is somewhat synonymous with Spike Lee’s recent “BlacKkKlansman,” which told a 1972 story and then non-subtly tied it to the Trump administration.
While Fonny’s mother will obviously never be close to Tish and her family, the two fathers concoct ways to earn enough money to (a) send Sharon to Puerto Rico, and (b) pay the young and hungry attorney who’s agreed to take Fonny’s case. Seems a beat cop who doesn’t like Fonny is trying to frame him for a rape which took place on the other side of New York City on a night Fonny had a worthy alibi. The rape victim has agreed with the beat cop simply to put the agony of that night out of her mind.
This is all quite interesting, but at its heart, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a love story – much as “To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t so much about a trial as it is a coming-of-age tale. I’m typically not a fan of the overuse of flashbacks in the movies, but they work here – probably because Jenkins inserts them when Baldwin does so in his novel. In fact, the entire “two families” scene I described above is interrupted by a brief scene of the young couple’s courtship that seems to fit just perfectly – providing us exactly the background we need (but no more) before returning to the present day.
Young actors KiKi Layne and Stephan James are perfectly cast as Tish and Fonny. And Jenkins (and cinematographer James Laxton) treat them with such respect that the scene in which they first consummate their relationship is filled with deep love – as opposed to the animalistic passion found in so many Hollywood films. It is perhaps the best love scene I’ve ever witnessed in a motion picture.
And Nicholas Britell’s period music is fantastic. He’s a young Jewish composer who also composed the score for “Moonlight.” Here, he interweaves his own compositions with some of the great black music of the 1950s and ‘60s. Much as in Spike Lee’s films, music takes center stage here; it’s not simply buried in the background. Music permeates everything from family meals to intimate times. And the ever-present record player seems to tie all the elements of “Beale Street” together in a nice little bow.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a beautiful film – exquisitely shot and very well-acted. And much as with “Moonlight,” Jenkins’ actors downplay their acting. Words are spoken softly, as opposed to orated as stage actors are wont to do. As with “Moonlight,” it’s almost impossible to discern that “Beale Street” is based on outside source material. It works so well as a motion picture, it doesn’t seem like a novel – much as “Moonlight” didn’t seem like a play.
But “Beale Street” has that racial undercurrent prevalent in Baldwin’s work that lets us know this is more than a simple story about two black families dealing with a forthcoming grandchild. There is a flashback containing a heartfelt discussion between Fonny and Daniel, a friend recently released from prison (an excellent supporting performance from Brian Tyree Henry, who was also in Steve McQueen’s recent “Widows”) who warns Fonny about how the “system” is rigged against the black man.
This may not be my very favorite film of 2018, but it is certainly among the dozen or so strongest. And on a side note, yes I realize Beale Street is in Memphis yet this story takes place in New York. As Baldwin wrote, Beale Street is representative of all black neighborhoods – be they in Memphis, New Orleans, New York, or elsewhere. Baldwin found it necessary to relate stories of the African-American experience so the culture could be preserved for all time. Fortunately, director Barry Jenkins does too.