Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins & James Baldwin
Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry
Composer: Nicholas Britell
Genre: Romance, Drama
One of the benefits arriving LttP for film criticism is having the advantage of being able to prepare more thoroughly for a review. Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son (shout-out to Richard Wright), Another Country—I am intimately familiar with James Baldwin’s body of work, but the man wrote six novels, six essay collections, a couple of plays, and at least one book of poetry. Only the most dedicated of Baldwin scholars would have read all of his works. When I saw the trailer for If Beale Street Could Talk for the first time during my screening of Widows, I was unaware that it is based upon a 1974 Baldwin novel. Upon learning this, I decided that before I wrote this review—regardless of when I saw the movie—I would read it first. I am pleased to report that this film is an overall successful adaptation despite coinciding with the book’s grim prognosis.
Violence/Scary Images: The most explicitly violent act takes place in the opening scene when a man backhands his wife. Later, a man will defend his woman’s honor by bouncing a would-be cat-caller out of a grocery store.
Though this section is generally reserved for violence of the physical and spectacular kind, If Beale Street Could Talk is primarily focused on the kind of violence that takes place psychologically: how one is able to scrounge together a dignified existence while under the ubiquitous and unpredictable threat of death—not necessarily death of the body (though this is completely possible, and has been historically the primary way it comes), but death to the soul, or to the mind.
Language/Crude Humor: The film kicks off with a rousing exchange of the dozens, particularly humorous or offensive depending on the audience. Women’s gender identity, virtue, and desirability are all subject to scrutiny during this exchange. Understandably, the bulk of the traditionally profane terminology, f**k, b***h, and s***t, can be heard here, along with a vulgar euphemism for “vagina.” Black characters sometimes refer to each other using the N-word, and not always endearingly, either. A few additional adult conversations take place to convey the horrors of prison, and the struggle of raising black kids in a prejudiced world.
Drug/Alcohol References: Where there is camaraderie and fellowship, there is alcohol. Smoking is also common, from cigarettes to reefer.
Sexual Content: The two main lovers have sex for the first time in a keynote scene. After removing their own tops, one breast nipple becomes visible from the shadows when they lie down. Alternatively, the man strips off-screen, reemerging sporting only briefs. During the physical act, the camera is placed overhead, with the woman looking up askance and breathing heavily as the man lies on top of her, face buried into a pillow and her neck.
A major plot point is that a man defends a woman from sexual harassment and assault, but he is later accused and convicted of rape. These may be triggers for victims of sexual violence.
Spiritual Content: During the exchange described above, one side assumes a posture of self-righteousness while denouncing, cursing, and disowning the product of a mother’s womb despite the fact that all of the women involved share a relationship with the father. It is the kind of scene that would make a non-believer feel justified in their lack of faith. It is also the kind of scene illustrating why (single) mothers might get abortions because their community would otherwise shun and shame them for their (obvious) sexual indiscretion. God is evoked a second time later in the film, functioning as a prayer, blessing, or evocation; it does not go well, terrifying the recipient.
As an appeal to human dignity, a child leads a prayer over snack foods during a prison visitation.
Racism and Bigotry: A beat cop sees a black man bounce a white man out of a grocery store. The white man flees, but the cop accosts the black man nevertheless, referring to him as “boy.” His girlfriend corrects the officer, and the grocery store owner defends the couple as well. Ominously, the cop says, “I’ll see you around,” to which his target says, “Maybe, maybe not.” It is heavily implied that the police uses a victim of rape to point out this man in the lineup as the perpetrator, despite the improbability that he could have gone across town in time to commit the crime. This is a situation that reaches beyond racial profiling, though it is consistent with the hyper-policing of black life, contributing to the Prison Industrial Complex.
Other Negative Content: When writing reviews for movies based upon books, I want to begin to use this section to vent concerning missing materials. The poor showing of the only outright Christians in If Beale Street Could Talk might have been balanced by a church worship scene in the novel. To the credit of the actors and actresses involved, some scenes need not be 1:1 because of how they transmit emotional effect, making up for less settings and scenes. Also missing from the novel: a woman who is three-months pregnant entertains the idea of becoming a prostitute to raise money to get her fiancé out of jail; after being fired for getting caught stealing, a father commits suicide.
The philosophy behind If Beale Street Could Talk is simple: it is a sustained demonstration of the multiplicity that is black love flourishing among conflict. Consistent with the non-linear nature of its novel source material, rather than present the conflict at the end of the first act, the audience is told at once that the relationship of interest was always already ill-fated. After a walk in the park concluded with an endearing kiss, the film shifts over a few frames into a prison. One-half of the couple, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), is incarcerated; his lover, Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) narrates.
In the explosive, keynote scene of the first act, Tish reveals to her family that she is with child, and the Rivers celebrate. However, because Fonny is the father, they begrudgingly invite the Hunts over to tell them the news. The womenfolk proceed to fight. Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), grieving the fall of her son, curses the baby as a sinful abomination, and her two spinster daughters join in on the admonishment. The Rivers naturally take offense that Mrs. Hunt would say such disparaging words about her own grandchild, let alone of that magnitude. Frank Hunt (Michael Beach), a man who loves his son unconditionally, also distressed, slaps the black off his wife, Mrs. Hunt, to the surprise of no one as she was popping off at the mouth. Tish’s father, Joseph Rivers (Colman Domingo), uses this disruption in the conflict to take Frank out for drinks. The Hunt women soon dismiss themselves in defeat.
The Hunts’ repulsive self-righteousness oozes from the screen. I cannot imagine how Baldwin might have wanted this scene to play out any differently given his background as a gay black son of a pastor. Christians willing to extend grace or offer support in an already bad situation would be ideal, but all the Hunt women offer is judgment and condemnation as soon as they enter the room. While the Fruit of the Spirit yields refreshing elements such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and goodness, the Hunts’ piety is bereft of empathy and reeks of austerity. Mrs. Hunt’s obsession with prayer ringing with ineffectiveness, especially because she says that despite all her religious devotion, she has not made the time to see neither Fonny nor his lawyer. Faith without works is dead, I have read…somewhere.
After establishing that the (black) church is not going to come to Fonny’s or Tish’s rescue, the film can move on to more important matters of black love. Before the Hunts arrive to stink up the place, the Rivers celebrate Tish’s pregnancy. This scene is an extreme (and boy, I hate using “extreme” as an adjective) contrast to what I am accustomed to experiencing in media when pregnancy is viewed as a burden rather than a blessing. Tish nervously tells her mother, Sharon (Regina King), the news, and she responds by turning up the record player and pouring drinks! Frank hopes for a boy, Tish’s sister Ernestine teases fondly, and even Frank tells Joseph that they’re going to out and get drunk. This is the kind of joy that those in the struggle for existence manage to find among the chaos.
This depiction of unconditional love persists through not just the flashbacks of Fonny and Tish’s pre-jail relationship, though the euphoria of their youthful exuberance is pleasantly inspiring. Ernestine finds lawyers foolish enough to take up a case involving a black man (adding To Kill a Mockingbird and A Lesson Before Dying, the attentive become aware that there are entire genres of literature dedicated to wrongly-accused minorities on death row), and she ensures that he stays on task for Fonny’s exoneration that was never meant to be because that is how the system of mass incarceration works.
Tish gets a job as a perfume girl at the counter of a big-box retailer, subjecting herself to the micro-aggressions of men who have no intention of purchasing anything. Frank and Joseph take to their street savvy by selling hot garments from the clothes factory so that they may afford Fonny’s lawyer. Sharon travels to the slums of Puerto Rico to appeal to the raped woman that Fonny was not responsible. Everyone bands together.
Though Regina King received
Oscar honors an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in this film, I do not see why. For the majority of the film, she is no more motherly than Harriet Winslow or a Vivian Banks. My best guess is that this award was earned during the film’s last act during her interaction with the rape victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Yet I believe Rios out-acts King in her own keynote sequence, delivering her lines like a woman familiar a woman’s burden further complicated by racial oppression that is not cross-compatible with the denizens of Harlem.
I am of the opinion that King is a benefactor of director Barry Jenkins’ work with Moonlight, which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. Expectations were high for his follow-up within the romance genre, and King’s name happens to be the most established among the entire cast. I maintain that her best work was done in the 90’s with Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice, Friday, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Jerry Maguire, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Enemy of the State, yet all but one of those movies are “black movies” was always overlooked by the Academy Awards.
There are not enough Oscars to go around, but as I have suggested earlier, the best acting comes from the duo of KiKi Layne and Stephan James—important, because how else could a love story be convincing if the two leads lack chemistry? That is not a problem here, because they emanate through their characters the kind of love that makes me remember the heart palpitations I would experience at the idea of seeing my [now, wife] fourteen years ago. Exuding reckless confidence and hope, Fonny triumphantly shouts in the street after finding a landlord who does not perceive his skin color as a liability. Consistent with her innocence and daintiness, Trish joins him with a shrill squeal of her own. It is simply cute. For supporting characters, Domingo’s Joseph is one smooth brotha; Parris’s Ernestine is the more experienced, protective big sister.
I tolerate non-linear narratives, preferring stories following traditional structure. So to Jenkins’ credit, every moment of delight in If Beale Street Could Talk follows an instance of pain, and vice-versa as the scenes transition seamlessly between the past and present. No scene feels out of place, especially while accompanied by Nicholas Bitrell’s outstanding soundtrack: “Eden (Harlem),” “The Children of Our Age,” “Agape,” “Eros,” “Jezebel,” “Eden (LES),” “P.B.A.,” and “Storage” are all songs going on my work playlist. The harmony between the stringed and brass instruments is simply delightful.
Unlike The Notebook, conflict in If Beale Street Could Talk does not come by way of making poor choices between mates (or terminal illness), but because the struggle is simply a part of the black experience. If Beale Street Could Talk captures this juxtaposition expertly, right down to an unsettling, ambiguous ending. It is the most endearing love story I have seen since Love Jones nineteen (!!!) years ago.
The Bottom Line