Throughout the later half of 2018 one movie kept creeping up as a potential award season favorite and even a strong contender for movie of the year. That film was “If Beale Street Could Talk”, a movie based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. Released in mid-December in a very limited capacity and expanding over the course of January I have waited patiently for my chance to check out this film to see what the buzz is all about. After all it received numerous nominations at the Golden Globes, with Regina King winning for Best Supporting Actress, and it’s expected to earn a few more award season nods from the Oscars on Tuesday. So, is “If Beale Street Could Talk” really the hard-hitting effective drama everyone says it is? Let’s find out. This is my review of “If Beale Street Could Talk”.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” takes place in the 1970s and focuses on black couple, Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). Fonny has been imprisoned for allegedly raping a Puerto Rican woman, a crime he did not commit, while Tish reveals that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child. Tish, along with her mother Sharon (Regina King), father Joseph (Colman Domingo), her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Peters) and Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) work together to scrounge up money and legal support to try and clear Fonny’s name hitting roadblock after roadblock in an era in America where racism was still openly rampant. The story is presented in a non-liner structure as it cuts away from the present day to show us the development of Fonny and Tish’s relationship and the struggles they endured as a black couple trying to find housing, employment and respect.
So to get right to it “If Beale Street Could Talk” does live up to the expectations quite a bit. It presents us with a grounded story unafraid of telling the honest truth of its time, and maybe even today, and it’s all anchored by a slew of awesome performances that give it an oddly charming theatrical vibe. I’m surprised the leading pair hasn’t gotten more awards buzz seeing as KiKi Layne and Stephen James are the rocks that keep this film as grounded and sincere as it is. They play Tish and Fonny, a pair of longtime friends whose partnership formed into romance, and both are exceptional in their roles with Tish being a soft-spoken, shy young woman who slowly evolves into a brave, independent and fiercely confident lady. Fonny is shown to have a great sense of humor and outlook on the world but we also get to see how delicate and helpless he can be at times as he leans on Tish but also does everything in his power to be her protector and lover. The chemistry between these two is believable and charming making or an incredible love story that ditches the campiness and feels sincere and real. I believed these two were in love. I believed their dedication to each other and I believed in what they saw in each other that kept them together through thick and thin. Considering how important this romance is to the film having such a great pair to lean on makes “If Beale Street Could Talk” one of the most genuine romantic dramas of its time in my opinion.
Besides Layne and James though the supporting cast definitely earns its credit. Regina King leads a crew of side characters who are all just as grounded and real as the leads. King certainly earns her Golden Globe as the strong-willed and determined mother of Tish who isn’t afraid to defend her daughters but does what most good mothers should do by empowering them to be more than the world allows them to be. Colman Domingo is an underrated performer as Tish’s dad, a man who seems to be much more world-weary than most people in the film yet is also the most optimistic. Even the characters with only minutes of screen time, such as Fonny’s mother and sisters, are incredible, bringing out the powerful emotional weight and conflict of the script and story to give “If Beale Street Could Talk” much more depth than simply being a romantic comedy or social injustice narrative. Every character is built to add to the narrative rather than just waste time and every line and exchange feels sincere and honest regardless of its context. There’s not one character, big or small, that I was disappointed with. Even the most cliched characters, like the token racist white cop, doesn’t feel wasted.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” sports an awesome and well written story that’s designed to provide an unapologetic look at how the prejudices of America can, and often do, get in the way of the lives of innocent victims. This films does something I’ve grown to appreciate in movies. It doesn’t glorify its characters as flawless. Pretty much everyone in this film has human flaws. Fonny and Trish’s dad are thieves, Tish is more immature than she thinks and Tish’s mom Sharon can be just as self-righteous as she accuses others of being. Yet we root for these characters. There’s a reason for this. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is willing to show that nobody is perfect, but that this is no reason to judge someone on the surface. While on the surface “If Beale Street Could Talk” does contain a very forward narrative focusing on the prejudice against African Americans in America there’s much more to it. It also successfully drives home the moral that just because someone is flawed that does not mean they are deserving of judgement. There’s a fine line between what a person does and who a person truly is.
I also heavily enjoyed the theatrical quality of this picture which, at times, does feel more like a production for the stage than it does for the big screen. The performances and script play out like a fantastic stage drama reminiscent of features like “Fences” where we are given very human moments where the performers are allowed to just lose themselves in the scene. For example, in the first act Fonny and Tish’s families come into conflict over the morality of Tish’s pregnancy making for what I believe to be one of the best scenes in the entire film. It feels so raw as the tension builds and eventually explodes off the screen. However, there’s more to “If Beale Street Could Talk” than just dialogue that justifies its cinematic merit. The cinematography and musical accompaniment are perfect with numerous carefully crafting shooting styles incorporated into the picture while the score and soundtrack is strategically placed only where it’s truly needed to help drive home the emotion of the moment. The entire production feels balanced, inspired and sprinkled with artistic genius which shouldn’t be a shock considering the film was written and directed by Barry Jenkins who also wrote and directed the Best Picture winning “Moonlight”, a film that takes a very similar approach to storytelling. “If Beale Street Could Talk” could have easily settled for being an inspiring story about racial prejudice, but it becomes so much more and rises above its basic themes to create an emotional and engaging experience like few films could ever hope to accomplish.
That said though as great as this picture is there were a few elements I felt could have been altered to enhance the feature. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the narration in the movie. Tish often talks directly to the audience explaining details of Fonny’s case and her observations from the past and present. This may have been how the book was written, I don’t know because to be honest I didn’t get to read it, but on film I don’t really feel like it was necessary. It does make it easier for viewers to understand the nuances of Fonny’s case and get some insight into Tish’s emotions, but I don’t think we needed that. Take away the narration and honestly most of this movie speaks for itself just fine. We don’t need to hear Tish’s take on the attorney’s perspective because we can see it. The actors are so committed that it’s all over their faces, not to mention the well written script they have to work with. The narration doesn’t feel like a necessary tool to tell this story, but rather a crutch to make sure people understand what “If Beale Street Could Talk” has to say. For me it would have been better to make me think. Make me experience these emotions first hand, don’t spoon-feed me. Maybe the only place the narration works is when Tish does detail Fonny’s accusation, but otherwise I could have done without it as well read as it is by KiKi Layne.
Otherwise the only other real issue with “If Beale Street Could Talk” is that it can still come off as a bit heavy handed. There’s still plenty of pandering moments that try to drive home the atrocities and judgement felt by the African American community, all issues that deserve to be brought to the forefront mind you, but I feel like it’s almost become a cliché at this point. We had SO many movies in 2018 that tackled racial discrimination that it’s almost become a genre all its own and it’s getting to the point where filmmakers really need to own their premise in order to be notable. Thankfully though “If Beale Street Could Talk” doesn’t just settle for being a movie about American racism. The racism actually takes a backseat to the romance and the family drama. If anything, I think “If Beale Street Could Talk” presents how these themes COULD continue to be a relevant part of the medium by incorporating them into different kinds of stories without focusing so hard on the social subtext. Let the racism speak for itself. This film is not above force-feeding us some moments clearly designed to strike a chord, but while these few scenes may irritate some they are few and far between compared to some of this movie’s contemporaries and yet the message is still heard loud and clear.
In conclusion this movie is fantastic. “If Beale Street Could Talk” definitely lives up to the hype surrounding it with amazing performances, grounded realism, perfect stylistic choices and a love story that puts many other modern dramas to shame. By focusing on the humanity of its characters while also allowing its social subtext to shine “If Beale Street Could Talk” brings out the best in not only its performers but its source material as well through a narrative that expresses how the unfair judgement of minorities can destroy the lives of perfectly acceptable people. By making the characters flawed they feel more human and genuine. By making the story more about the impacts of racism than racism itself it feels sincere and more tragic. By making the story nonlinear we see how life used to be transposed over the chaos that a simple racial-based judgement can have on a normal family. And finally by giving this film a theater-like quality it allows the emotion and tension to shine without overpowering the humanity of it’s characters. “If Beale Street Could Talk” could have easily settled for being just another garden variety story about America’s unfortunate racist history, but it chooses to be so much more and does so spectacularly.