Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris
Director: Barry Jenkins
After 2015’s Best Picture winning Moonlight, I was eagerly awaiting whatever Jenkins would come out with next, and to no surprise, If Beale Street Could Talk absolutely lives up to my lofty expectations for it. A masterclass film that beautifully intertwines a story of true unconditional love in the backdrop of a society where racism rules, only a director like Jenkins could make a story like this a reality and so perfectly immerse the audience in this experience. Wonderfully acted, beautifully shot, and including one of the best scores of awards season all make If Beale Street Could Talk one of the most sensitive and emotive movies of the season.
The film follows Tish (Layne), a young woman who is pregnant with her boyfriend Fonny’s (James) child. After Fonny is arrested for a rape that he did not commit, it is up to Tish and her family to help Fonny get out of prison while keeping his mind in tact as the hardships of prison and separation take a toll on their relationship and the pending birth of their child. The thing that makes a movie like this succeed or fail right from the beginning is the acting. Fortunately, If Beale Could Talk is first and foremost powered by a duo with unmatched chemistry and talent with Layne and James. Very rarely do I see a movie and believe the characters love each other, but if I had to show someone one movie that displays what true, young love looks like at its realist and most intimate level, this movie would be one of the ones I would consider showing. For the rest of the ensemble, actors like King and Brian Tyree Hill do an excellent job with the limited amount of time they have on-screen of either reinforcing the love that is shared between Tish and Fonny or showing the true dark reality that young black men face in a society that is out to destroy them. The most impressive scene with most of the cast is when Tish reveals she is pregnant and Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) spends that one scene showing us how close-minded and off-putting a woman can put, but the response to it is maybe one of the loudest I’ve gasped in a movie theater before. Outside of the acting, the technical aspects of this movie are equally if not more impressive. Starting with the score, very few scores elevate a movie to the point where it feels like an out-of-body experience, but this score makes you feel like you are floating on a cloud. It puts you in a dream-like trance that represents the love that Tish and Fonny have for each other and shows us how they truly feel when they are around each other. Outside of the score, the cinematography and editing help keep the film grounded and make it feel like you are right there in the streets of Harlem with Tish and Fonny. When these are complemented by an enticing story, we end up watching a film that is complete from start to finish. Speaking of the story, this may be the thing that is most powerful about the film. Not necessarily the love portion, but the trial portion that displays how little the criminal justice system cares about black men and how that relates to Fonny. I think there was another level of depth that this film could have taken into Fonny’s case, and this film goes from Harlem to Puerto Rico trying to figure out the truth of the matter. There were multiple moments where I felt that the case was leaning in Fonny’s favor, and none of these points mattered because the system does not care. Their objective was to make sure this young black man had his life ruined regardless of who was hurt along the way and is a true reflection of the justice system from this time period.
Overall, Jenkins’ second major release is almost as spectacular as his first and shows us that he truly has a special gift for capturing the essence of a time, place, or person. Maybe the saddest thing about this movie is not that these events happened to Fonny and Tish, but that it continues to happen to people like them to this very day. Maybe it will take a movie like If Beale Street Could Talk to help change people’s minds on the issue of race in America, but we’ll never really know unless we try.
Overall Score: 9/10