Review: If Beale Street Could Talk: A Timely Reflection on Black Incarceration in America

A still from the movie. The movie has won three golden globes. Photo from https://www.instagram.com/bealestreet/

By Carlisha Jennings, Howard University News Service

If Beale Street Could Talk, released in theaters on December 25, 2018, is a breathtaking follow-up to Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. The film is an adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Regina King, KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry, and Michael Beach are featured stars in the film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

This captivating love story, which has won several awards, is about 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (James). Tish, the narrator of the film, often reminisces on passion-filled moments shared with her fiancée, Fonny, prior to his arrest for a crime he did not commit. Despite the conflict and differences between their families, Tish and Fonny were inseparable growing up. As young adults, their friendship blossomed into unconditional love. Their story can be compared to the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet. Although society and members of their families attempt to tear them apart, their love seems to transcend the drama and shelters them in their own dream world.

The film begins with the couple taking a romantic walk to a quiet place where they share a passionate kiss. Jenkins and the cinematographer (James Laxton) use fascinating camera angles such as a God’s-eye view of the couple walking together. From that angle, the audience is drawn into Tish and Fonny’s world as omniscient spectators that are having a rare glimpse into their private life together. Laxton and Jenkins’ creativity transforms what would otherwise be an ordinary moment into something magical. This creativity is demonstrated throughout the film.

The imagery of the film is absolutely stunning and makes each scene look like a painting in a museum. I was impressed with the set and costume design that make the setting of the film, 1970s Harlem, New York, seem believable. I fell in love with the soundtrack composed by Nicholas Britell, who also composed the soundtrack for “Moonlight.” It is a fusion of experimental jazz and classical music. Britell’s heavy use of brass and string instruments is a great choice, as it complements the dreamy but the moody tone of the film. The swelling violins bring out the intensity of each dramatic moment.

The plot is interesting and engaging. However, a few scenes seem to drag on a little too long. The story is told out of order, so the timeline is a bit unclear at some points. The casting for the film was well-done. KiKi Layne and Stephan James have incredible chemistry on-screen, making their relationship believable. They both gave exceptional performances—breathing life into the characters James Baldwin created. All of the actors gave memorable performances, but there are a few who stood out by delivering some powerful and thought-provoking monologues. Regina King, who recently won a Golden Globe for her role in the film, gives one of her best performances yet as Tish’s outspoken and supportive mother, Sharon.

One of my favorite performances is by Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Fonny’s long-lost best friend, Daniel, who has just been released from prison after serving time for trumped-up charges. In one scene, Daniel and Fonny have an intimate conversation about incarceration and their terrifying experiences as black men in America. Henry delivers his lines with passion and sincerity to give Fonny a gut-wrenching account of what life was like for him in prison as a black man. His story foreshadows Fonny’s eventual fate and serves as a cautionary tale for him. One could even say that Daniel’s story serves as a cautionary tale for all black men and women in America.

Jenkins’ adaptation of Baldwin’s novel is very timely, given the current state of affairs in America. It is both depressing and terrifying to know that a story written in 1974 is just as relevant today as it was then. Countless African-American men and women are still falsely imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and shot and killed for existing. I think it was important for Jenkins to retell this story. It is a notice to everyone that America has come a long way since the 1970s, but we still have a long way to go.

As a fan of James Baldwin’s work, I admit to being a little skeptical about the film doing the novel justice. Despite the slow pacing in some scenes and the occasional confusing timeline, I enjoyed the film. I can appreciate the way Jenkins decided to retell the story. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is worth seeing for yourself.