Beautifully directed, If Beale Street Could Talk is able to raise the bar on what we come to expect from writer-director Barry Jenkins.
If you didn’t notice it with Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has a way with telling a story on camera. If Beale Street Could Talk further enhances his work as a storyteller. Jenkins puts so much care into the film even if it’s James Baldwin’s words that he adapts on screen. We especially see this with how he treats the two main relationships at the core of the film. On the one hand, there are childhood friends Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James). On the other hand, there’s Tish’s parents, Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Sharon (Regina King).
Baldwin’s story takes us to 1970s Harlem following of brief explanation of Beale Street being everywhere. We meet Tish Rivers as she informs her artist fiancé Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt that he’s going to be a father. Unfortunately, Fonny is sitting in jail. We later learn that this is because he was accused of a sexual assault that he didn’t commit.
The Rivers and Hunt families are a tale of two cities. While Joseph is able to get along with Fonny’s dad, Frank (Michael Beach), the same can not be said of his mom (Aunjanue Ellis). His mom is one of the religious types. She is not afraid of cursing her own grandchild! Even Tish’s sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) has her back. When it comes to clearing Fonny’s name, it’s Sharon who does the bulk of the work rather than Fonny’s own parents!
I don’t doubt that Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) was a victim of rape. I don’t believe for a second that Fonny could do it. As Tish explains, there’s no way he could get from one side of the city to the other in a matter of minutes. It’s seemingly impossible. Fonny’s friend, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) knows this all too well having just been released from jail. But her picking Fonny out of a lineup has more to do with Officer Bell’s (Ed Skrein) racism than anything else. There’s a lot of subtext that one can take from the cop’s initial encounter with Fonny outside of a store. We know then and there that he’s bound to take him down. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a crime he didn’t commit because Bell is on a vendetta.
We get to know more about Tish and Fonny’s relationship both before and after he goes to jail. Two of them were going to have a bright future together with plans to move into a loft. That future however was sadly not meant to be. Levy (Dave Franco), who shows them the loft, says color of skin doesn’t matter as long as the two of them are in love. The showing also features some of the film’s lighter moments with the improvised lifting of household appliances.
As a director, Barry Jenkins knows when to pull back and let the music do the talking. There’s a few times where all we see is just one face or another. Nobody has to talk in these instances because the music does it for them.
Should If Beale Street Could Talk be any indication, we might see more James Baldwin works make their way to the screen.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Barry Jenkins
CAST: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Emily Rios, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock, with Brian Tyree Henry and Regina King