IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins from the book by James Baldwin
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/1/18
Opens: December 14, 2018
When James Baldwin wrote the book that Barry Jenkins adapted for this film, conditions for African-Americans had already improved, but not nearly as much as black people could accept nor could even tolerant and accepting white people would hope. In 1974, however, the situation was different, even in a supposedly blue city like New York. There were racist cops then, and there are racist cops now. There are landlords who will not rent to people of color then, and there are landlords who turn away black couples now. There were false accusations of rape then, and for all we know that situation exists today. We may think that all this prejudice comes from the South, from the so-called red states, but as Baldwin shows, and as Jenkins nicely adapts, racism turns up in New York nowadays where there are neighborhood that had never seen a residing person of color.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is in good directorial hands given that Barry Jenkins’ stunning sophomore movie, “Moonlight,” which chronicles the youth, adolescence and adulthood of a gay man in a rough section of Miami. “Moonlight” picked up $65 million worldwide with a production budget of $4 million and garnered nominations and awards from the Golden Globes and the Academy and from a stack of critics’ organizations. This time Jenkins turns down the surrealism in favor of evoking a naturalistic look at young love amid a society that makes it difficult for innocent black men to plead their case effectively and which puts them in detention facilities for months, maybe years (Rikers Island in New York for example), if they cannot afford to make bail.
While Baldwin’s book starts when Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) is in jail, Jenkins transposes the events leaving us with a series of scenes which together will amount to a summing up of the lives of a couple, Fonny age 22 and his 19-year-old sweetheart Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne). “If Beale Street Could Talk,” covers primarily events in the lives of the principal couple while extending their society to her family, his family and friends, and the greater world that impinges on their lives.
The story is narrated by Tish, whose love for Fonny and his for her are vividly demonstrated. The movie opens with the two of them walking slowly and with obvious affection through Harlem streets. She will eventually get a job behind the perfume counter of a department store, stating in her narration that the owners must consider themselves progressive for hiring her. She also relates some humorous if stereotypical reactions her customers will have, noting that white men will hold her hand, spray perfume on it and sniff it while black customers would not deign to patronize her section.
Life skews out of control when a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), is raped. Fonny is false accused in a lineup. When Rogers returns to Puerto Rico, Fonny is behind bars, his trial repeatedly postponed as he is visited regularly by Tish. Meanwhile Tish’s assertive mom Sharon Rivers (Regina King) is determined to get her potential son-in-law exonerated, even traveling to Puerto Rico to try to convince the accuser to return and reconsider her testimony. If the determination of a racist cop, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) to put Fonny away because of a previous grudge is the movie’s most disgraceful scene, even family members cannot guarantee support as Fonny’s Bible-thumping mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), hearing that Tish is pregnant, wishes that the fetus would wither in the womb and accuses her of being a whore.
A few white guys appear in the tale, only one of them, the cop, playing out his racism. Levy (David Franco), a real estate agent, is perfectly happy to offer Trish and Fonny a loft on New York’s West Village Bank Street, and Hayward (Finn Wittrock) wants to take the case as the family lawyer stating that he would not accept the role if he were not sure Fonny is innocent.
This is quite a well-made production lifted from the commonplace by the all-embracing love of Tish and Fonny, lensed by James Laxton on the streets of Manhattan, edited with appropriate flashbacks by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, the emotions evoked with the help of Nicholas Britell’s music.
119 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+