Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
When the smoke cleared from the debacle that was the end of the 2017 Oscars telecast, director Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight was left standing as the best picture of 2016. The movie was only the director’s second feature film and was made on a limited budget, but its success has allowed Jenkins to next pursue a passion project in the form of an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Jenkins wastes not a single ounce of his newfound resources and manages to turn this ambitious project into a movie that works both as an exposé of the faults in our legal system and as a story about the power of love.
The title refers to a real street in New Orleans, but the movie takes place in Harlem in the 1970s. Tish Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt are a pair of young lovers who are split up when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and arrested. It is through glass at the jailhouse that Tish must tell Fonny that she is pregnant with his baby. She becomes determined to prove Fonny’s innocence so that he can be out of jail before the baby is born, but the more she fights the system, the more they find out just how much the deck is stacked against them.
The first thing that stands out in If Beale Street Could Talk is the film’s glorious cinematography, especially its use of colors and light. The first shot of the movie follows Tish and Fonny as they walk hand and hand, each dressed in bright blues and yellows, as the sun spreads a glow of luminous light around them. He asks her if she is ready and she responds that she has never been more ready in her whole life. It is never quite explained what they are referring to in this specific moment, but we are immediately ready for this romance to blossom. Then, with a quick voiceover and a single cut, the rug is pulled out from under us as we find our two lovers separated by glass in the jailhouse visiting room.
From here, the movie moves both forward and backward in time. In the flashbacks, we see their relationship blossom from friendship to passionate romance. We see all the ups and downs of their relationship—their absolute glee when they find a loft to share, and the terror they feel when confronted by a racist police officer. There is also an extended drinks and dinner scene with their friend Daniel, who has recently been released from prison. It is Daniel’s harrowing tale about how the prison system has broken him that foreshadows the brutal truth of what Fonny will face.
In the present, after an intense, shocking scene in which Tish’s understanding family reveals her pregnancy to Fonny’s decidedly less-receptive family, Tish meets with the lawyer handling Fonny’s case who lays down everything that is working against him, whether it be fair or not. With this part of its story, the movie does not hide how it feels about the imbalance of the justice system and how it is working against those it was designed to protect. But love is at the forefront of this storyline, too, as the movie shows us the lengths to which Tish’s family will go to help, even if it means breaking the law themselves—something Fonny didn’t even do in the first place.
The performances in If Beale Street Could Talk are off-the-charts impressive. Newcomer KiKi Layne is a shining light in the center of the film as Tish and Stephan James, as Fonny, is clearly one of this year’s breakout performers, with this film immediately following his role in the Amazon show Homecoming opposite Julia Roberts.
Although this is mostly Tish and Fonny’s story, it is definitely an ensemble movie that allows each of its actors to have their big moments. Regina King delivers her most compelling performance in years as Tish’s mother. She takes over the movie for a sequence in which she travels to Puerto Rico to try and convince the rape victim to admit that it wasn’t Fonny who raped her and it feels like she could have carried an entire movie about this pursuit on her own. And then there is Brian Tyree Henry, who only shows up for one sequence of the movie as Tish and Fonny’s friend Daniel, but it is arguably the most compelling sequence in the entire movie. Even though the movie allows its supporting players to take over the movie for extended sequences, it does so without ever taking too much focus away from the love story at its center.
If Beale Street Could Talk manages to be an emotional gut-punch of a drama that tackles some tough issues that are no less solved in 2018 than they were in 1974, while still being something that you walk away from feeling the true power of love. And it does so while being one of the most visually stunning movies of the year. A definite must-see that deserves some attention come awards season.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens today at the Regal Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle.