Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk
Director Barry Jenkins polishes up another gem. And like a diamond, If Beale Street Could Talk is beautiful, sharp, and comes to you as a product of the pain and suffering of black bodies.
If the introductory tagline didn’t clue you in, If Beale Street Could Talk is a challenging film. Like Jenkin’s last film, Moonlight, Beale Street is the centered on love and connectedness between marginalized and victimized individuals. Also like Moonlight, it begs your attention with how professional and moving it is. From the cinematography to the soundtrack to the dialogue to the acting, If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterpiece. It swirls love, hate, hope, fear, and a deep, deep, intimacy into a bittersweet symphony. Beale Street is a film that both breezes through it’s 2 hour runtime and lingers long afterwards.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) is a young African American woman living in Harlem. Despite the challenges of growing up poor and black, she has found happiness: falling in love with her childhood best friend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) promises a new life together, and her family is tight knit and supportive. The bubble bursts when a cop with a grudge sets Fonny up on a rape charge. Tish must struggle against a system designed to keep people of color down while also nurturing a new life blossoming within her.
Everything’s Right Where It Belongs
Calling If Beale Street Could Talk polished seems like an understatement. I’ve rarely seen a film so cohesively crafted. The camera expertly transistions from tight portraits to circling panoramas that make the film feel both intimate and grand. The use of colors highlights the characters, the locales and the mood. Beale Street proves that Barry Jenkins captivating cinematography in Moonlight was no flash in the pan. The music conjures up emotion and flavor; Jazz and Soul music breathing life into this time and place.
Are You Sure Which Side of the Glass You’re On?
Combining with the beautiful camera work is a script that flows like water. The dialogue dances gracefully from warm, to funny, to deeply emotional moments with grace and a sense of purpose. The actors providing the dialogue are spectacular. Layne and James ooze charisma, easily selling the sweeping emotions of young love, frustration at daily life for African Americans in America, and the fear and anguish that their lives might be over before they even began. Both have stares that both enrapture and haunt; Barry Jenkins allows the camera to linger on their faces (as he did in Moonlight), making the audience purposely uncomfortable with being voyeurs in these intensely personal moments. Layne and James both have moments where you swear they can see you from the other side of the screen, and it was piercing and poignant.
All this creates an experience that sweeps you along, a perfectly balanced tale. I’ve seen more entertaining films. I have also seen prettier ones. I’ve rarely seen one so excellent across the board. It’s a synergy that deserves to be seen just for cinema’s sake.
What if You Could Look Right Through The Cracks…
The messages in If Beale Street Could Talk are tough. The film is set in the 70’s, and life in general is tough for people of color. The name of the movie (and the book it was adapted from) comes from the idea that every community has a Beale Street; a poor concentration of color and culture where the community has to find ways to create life often despite overt evidence that none should exist there. The fear, frustration, and anger aren’t separate from the hope, the determination, and the strength of “Beale Street”: they coexist, creating and destroying each other in measure.
This overarching drama finds personal, timeless elements in Tish, Fonny, and everyone in their orbit. Tish’s struggle as a single mother-to-be, Fonny’s treatment at the hands of the Prison Industrial Complex, and the emotional and financial struggle of their two families as they seek justice; each weaves seamlessly in and out, reminders of the past and parallels to today. The scene where Tish’s mother locates the woman accusing Fonny of rape was powerful, a #MeToo moment that was once again made all the better for how comprehensive and cohesive the film’s portrayals are.
Would You Find Yourself Afraid to See?
If you liked Moonlight, you’ll love If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s a little less somber, but just as powerful, and every step as beautiful. If you want to watch a film-making masterclass, you couldn’t do better than study Barry Jenkins. If you want two hours that will fill you up, empty you out, and leave you captivated from scene to scene, Beale Street will be right up your alley.
I’m glad I got a chance to see this film. I hope you’ll take a chance on a film with such overpowering humanity to it. I think you’ll be glad you did.