Review: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk

Rating

Director

Barry Jenkins

Screenplay

Barry Jenkins (Novel: James Baldwin)

Length

1h 59m

Starring

KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco

MPAA Rating

R for language and some sexual content.

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Review

Many filmmakers over the years have explored the human condition, but few have given the black community the same attention to passion and detail as Barry Jenkins has in his second feature directorial effort, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, the story takes place in Harlem where two young lovers (Tish and Fonny) struggle against the racial injustice of the era. Tish (KiKi Layne) discovers she’s pregnant after Fonny (Stephan James) has been falsely accused of rape and is awaiting trial.

An incredibly well written drama, If Beale Street Could Talk features stirring performances from everyone, most notably Layne and James as the ill-fated lovers. Layne is given access to numerous scenes in which she can shine, from the shy self-conscious personality she exhibits when telling her family for the first time that she’s pregnant out of wedlock to the hopeful exuberance that bursts from her character as flashbacks show her budding relationship with Fonny. As her romantic equal, James shines with equal prominence whether frustrated and terrified in prison or passionate and loving in flashback.

As Tish’s mother Sharon, Regina King is superb, giving the audience a mother of quiet strength and dignity forced to watch her daughter struggle against the tide of culture and the systemic injustice of the legal system. Her trip to Cuba is a highlight of the film as is her passionate speeches to Layne when she first announces her pregnancy and her rebuke against the puritanical reaction of Fonny’s mother.

The rest of the cast is given few scenes, though Colman Domingo as Tish’s father Joseph is stellar in his limited appearance as are Aunjanue Ellis and Michael Beach as Fonny’s parents, Ed Skrein as a racist cop, Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister, Emily Rios as the woman who has accused Fonny of rape, and Brian Tyree Henry as one of Fonny’s friends who has recently been released from prison.

Although some declared Moonlight an unparalleled masterpiece, there’s more in Jenkins’ sophomore effort to praise than in his debut film. Adapting Baldwin’s novel was a daunting task. While the film misidentifies New Orleans as the home of Beale Street (it is actually located in Memphis, Tenn.), the reference is meant more as a note that the black experience is near-universal with any street in the U.S. substituting in for Beale Street in its exemplification of the triumph of the black spirit. Jenkins’ script captures that well through its sparkling dialogue and his powerful, generous direction, which gives the performers all the room they need to turn in indelible performances.

James Laxton’s gorgeous photography showcases how impressive interior photography can be, especially when exterior photography dominates most conversations. Every scene is sculpted meticulously, a visual display of tension and artistic creativity. It’s a gorgeous film that puts nearly everything else released in 2018 to shame. Nicholas Britell’s haunting and expressive score provides perfect underscoring for the events of the film, most notably the jazzy theme that accompanied one of the film’s early trailers.

Standing alongside Moonlight, this film carefully observes its characters, creating dramatic tension while avoiding pomp and excess. It’s a subtle, lived-in cinematic experience that feels like a familiar, but original historical slice of life.

If Beale Street Could Talk is not just one of the best films made in 2018, it’s one of the best adaptations in cinema history, a beautiful, poetic exploration of love and determination in the face of unenviable odds. More so than BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk tackles modern issues of race through a historical lens, one that shines a flashlight into the dark recesses of racism and oppression, but never bows its head to them, insisting that even in the face of great adversity, strength of character will win out.

Review Written

April 8, 2019

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