To those with just a passing awareness of such things, Moonlight may only be known as that film at the center of Envelopegate at the 2017 Academy Awards; the cast and crew of La La Land ascended to the stage thinking they’d won Best Picture, only to realize the wrong title had been announced and, in a reversal welcomed by cinephiles everywhere, Moonlight emerged as the true winner. The snafu cost Barry Jenkins and his remarkable film its much-deserved moment in the spotlight, but as legacies go, if it’s that memorable moment that gets this exceptional film on anyone’s radar, well…all’s well that ends well.
Following such a critically acclaimed film is no small feat (it was the best film of that year in my book), and lesser filmmakers might shrink at the challenge. Not Barry Jenkins.
Rather than follow the well-worn path of indie filmmakers turned blockbuster helmers, Jenkins has decidedly opted for the auteur route, adapting an under-appreciated American novel by none other than James Baldwin, a story of love, friendship, prejudice, tragedy and hope. If Beale Street Could Talk is a near perfect film, one that marries Baldwin’s poetic, evocative narrative with Jenkin’s lyrical, stirring filmmaking to create a film so captivating it immediately establishes itself as essential viewing. Baldwin’s work focused on the black experience in America in all its beauty and turmoil, and the story of Tish, Fonny and their families at the center of If Beale Street… is no exception. It’s this heart-wrenching balance, the joy and the sadness, the love and the loss, struck so poignantly from first frame to last that ensures Jenkins not only does Baldwin’s work justice but perhaps elevates it to a universal resonance.
Tish Rivers (a wonderful new arrival in Kiki Layne) is 19 and in love with the boy next door. She and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since they were little, and now as lovers they share a familiarity and intimacy that only comes with years of friendship. Their families are cut from different cloths, however; hers work-a-day and middle class, brimming with love and unbothered by pretexts; his all proper and pious, of an upper middle class ilk that looks down on the likes of the Rivers family. So when, at the outset of the film, Tish finds herself unexpectedly pregnant with Fonny’s baby, breaking the news to her own family is an exercise in unconditional love in action. Her mother Sharon (a resplendent Regina King), father Joseph (the wickedly under-cast Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) welcome the news with open hearts, instantly overjoyed at the prospect of new life. Fonny’s family is less thrilled at this development, making it impossible to look away from the inevitable conflict between the two, each convinced they are loving their children in the best, right way.
Basking in the glow of their pending arrival, Tish and Fonny determine to start their lives as a young, new family. Like anyone, they want nothing more than to put their heads down, mind their own affairs and pursue a bit of happiness—build a home together, raise a family, prosper in their own little corner of the world. But this is New York in the early 1970s, and the path is not easy for young African Americans trying to make good on the promise of the Civil Rights Act and all the turmoil of the preceding decade. Racial bias and inherent injustice are lurking around every corner, and navigating this minefield will come to define their life together. When Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, Tish and her family put every ounce of their energy into proving him innocent against a rigged system.
What unfolds for the remainder of the film, as Tish awaits the arrival of her child, Sharon enlists a defense lawyer on Fonny’s behalf and Joseph attempts to bolster Fonny’s own unmoored father, recounts with grace and sensitivity an all too familiar experience for those among us born without the privilege of gender, race or economic status. Assumptions, bias, oppression and disadvantage abound, the sort of burdens that individually might overwhelm any one of us; together, one would be forgiven for wondering how any one of these characters doesn’t just throw their hands up in frustration and give up entirely. This, of course, is the point.
For generations, families like the Riverses and the Hunts have not only lived through the ingrained injustices of a country that has never (and may never) see them as equals, but thrived despite of it. Without ever saying so, it’s clear that these two stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. It’s also clear that the best way they can ever hope to honor the legacy of all those generations is through sheer force of will, an insistence on being joyful in the face of adversity, on celebrating blessings as they come, on continuing the fight for justice wherever it’s required and, most importantly, on loving despite it all.
Jenkins brings his signature lingering perspective to If Beale Street Could Talk, building scenes and shots that are so beautifully composed, one will recall them long after leaving the theater. Bold color schemes in costumes and sets, completely appropriate for the era, complement an overall warm tone of the film, perhaps to soften the blow as the reality of Tish and Fonny’s situation sets in. Through every heartbreak and triumph, every tragedy and achievement, Jenkins exquisitely channels Baldwin’s unmistakable narrative style—a combination of anger, optimism, anguish and honesty—to harrowing effect. If films are meant to expand hearts and minds, to offer different perspectives on the world and to open a dialogue about things we don’t normally talk about but very much need to, If Beale Street Could Talk not only accomplishes this, it exemplifies it. To see this film is to be moved by it.
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