If Beale Street Could Talk

if_beale_street_could_talk_ver2STARS3Writer James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is lovingly adapted into a beautifully filmed love story about a Harlem couple in the 1970s.  The last feature director Barry Jenkins made won the Oscar for Best Picture so expectations are understandably high.  If Beale Street Could Talk is about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), newly engaged to her boyfriend Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), better known as Fonny.  We are presented with scenes that show they grew up together.  They have known each other since childhood.  This is fashioned as a romance for the ages.  However, conflict has entered the sanctity of their lives which threatens to upend everything they hold dear.  Fonny has been falsely identified for a crime he didn’t commit.  We see Tish visit Fonny in jail to deliver some major news.  She is pregnant. Cinematographer James Laxton lingers on faces like they’re masterpieces carved in marble.   These images cast a spell that gently invites the viewer to reflect on the disparity between the beauty of their relationship and the ugliness of what has befallen them.  Barry Jenkins screenplay is a somber contemplation of a love fret with hardship.  There are many elegantly composed scenes that convey a feeling in the absence of dialogue.  Indeed the deliberate pace comes at the expense of action.

There is an early moment in Beale Street that tempts the viewer with what might develop into an electrifying ensemble piece.  Tish must break the news of her pregnancy to her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).  They are shocked but supportive.  Now how to tell Fonny’s family? There’s his religiously sanctimonious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), more easygoing father (Michael Beach), and judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).  Sharon invites them over to their home for drinks.  Then the verbal fireworks start.  It’s a memorable scene.  Occasional flashbacks throughout show us how Tish and Fonny’s life was before he was arrested, then contrast it with their lives in the present.  Yet nothing matches the sheer drama of the earlier showdown.

If Beale Street Could Talk is compelling in fits and starts.  I call those moments Regina King.  The actress has been picking up awards left and right for her work.  She’s extraordinary.  Sharon’s drive to prove her son-in-law’s innocence ultimately necessitates a trip to Puerto Rico.  It’s the portrait of a mother who only wants justice and truth.  The halcyon days of Tish and Fonny’s romance are idealized with gauzy cinematography highlighting two pretty young people.  Fonny is a sculptor and he works amidst cigarette smoke swirling around a piece he’s creating with a saxophone wailing in the background.  They gaze longingly at each other and the dreamy display is not unlike the sculpture he’s creating — a precious objet d’art to study and appreciate from afar.  A grave injustice underlies their lives and yet there’s no there there.  The action, or lack of it, concerns what appear to be in the details.  How can the reflective inertia of the rest of the film compete with mother Sharon’s emotional fire?  Every time actress King is on screen I was riveted and every time she garners accolades for her achievement, I get it.  I simply wish there was more of her.

12-13-18

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2 Responses to “If Beale Street Could Talk”

  1. How did you feel about it in comparison to Moonlight? I’m still trying to work out how I feel. Moonlight was more visually striking, but I think Beale Street had a more engaging plot.

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