Writer and Director: Barry Jenkins
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Following-up on the highly acclaimed and eventual best picture winner Moonlight should never have been easy, but Barry Jenkins makes it look effortless in his latest movie If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel set in Harlem and detailing a love story against the backdrop of a rape case, police corruption and racial divide in 1970s America.
Tish and Fonny are in love, they’ve known each other since they were children and were always meant to be together. She is 19 and he is 22, and no matter what is happening around them they have each other. When Fonny is spuriously accused of rape, the only witness is a white policeman who claims to have seen him running away, Tish enlists both families to prove his innocence. With no doubt in her mind and a baby on the way, she is determined to stand by her man.
Barry Jenkins is really an old-school romantic, you can see it in the way he lights his films, the tone he picks to tell his love-against-the-odds stories, and the soulful music of the 50s and 60s that are the soundtrack to every vital moment. If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful movie, one that always keeps the love of the central couple in the foreground while other events and plot developments, though important, are filtered through the screen of their devotion to one another. It is not that they are muted, only that their relationship, the connection between Tish and Fonny, brings warmth and engagement to the film.
There is absolutely no question of Fonny’s innocence – it’s not that type of film – and we first meet the couple as they sit on either side of a plastic prison screen as Tish announces her pregnancy. From there Jenkins weaves together the ongoing fight to clear Fonny’s name with memories of their love affair from the early nervous dates to their attempts to set-up home together, both of which slowly unveil the truth about living in Harlem and the suspicion that even the most innocent couple face on a daily basis.
The innocence of Trish and Fonny contrasts so meaningfully with the intrusion of the real world around them, and as Tish pursues various leads, ably supported by her wonderful mother, the audience is shown, in no uncertain terms, how frequently young black men were imprisoned for crimes they could not possibly have committed while ingrained prejudice was rife in a mixed black, Hispanic and white working-class neighbourhood. Important to note too, the casual harassment that Tish endures even as a pregnant perfume assistant.
Jenkins gives all of his characters a reality that helps the audience to make sense of the scenario he portrays. KiKi Layne as the sweet but determined Tish dominates the film, slightly dreamy in a way but also fully comprehending the complicated political dangers of her situation. Yet, she stays true to her course and her man, growing up as the story unfolds, taking her baby and her campaign in her stride.
Stephen James’ Fonny is equally blindsided by love, a sensitive soul with a career in sculpture, he is far more grounded that Tish, fully aware of the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is desperate to protect Tish from the worst of it, trying to stay upbeat while James strongly implies the difficulties of his imprisonment.
There is heavyweight support from a surrounding cast who are a little too lightly sketched but make enough of an impression. An excellent tragi-comic scene early on sees the two families at odds as Tish’s relatives, mum Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) clash with Fonny’s God-fearing mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and his prissy sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne). King has more screen-time as the nurturing parent who goes to admirable lengths to stand-by her daughter and help to clear Fonny’s name.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a worthy follow-up to Moonlight, it may even be better. Jenkins gives a slightly heightened fairy-tale quality in the visuals (like a Todd Haynes film) and the tone that are a delight. And while the couple discovers that who they are, and their location means they have to live life the hard way, they always have each other and that is all they ever wanted anyway.
Release Date 8 February 2019 | Image: Contributed