‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ | Film Review

Love is something that some require in our lives. What’s hard is that it thrives on hate, confusion, or just plain feelings for someone that can’t get you out of your mind. Barry Jenkins’ latest, If Beale Street Could Talk, based James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, might give us a lesson about what it means to love somebody no matter what cost.

What’s the Story: In early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish (Kiki Layne) vividly recall the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Jenkins popularity in Hollywood really skyrocketed two years ago when Moonlight was released with critical acclaim, and it went on the win three Oscars, including Best Picture (La La Land should’ve won, to be honest). And like most directors that started off really strong, the anticipation of his follow-up couldn’t come any sooner. I’ve been waiting for If Beale Street Could Talk to come to Indianapolis before making my Top 10 list of the year. Can’t say it Jenkin’s latest made it in there, but it’s a drama that has a lot to say about love, family and trust.

Never reading the source material this was based on, it’s clear that Jenkins’ wanted to be faithful with this adaptation, and I think he pulled it off. There’s just something about the way he captures the 1970s and the love that Fonny, 22 and Tish, 19 have for each other that feeds the soul in all of us. It’s told in a nonlinear fashion as it involves flashbacks to when we see the couple showed their love. He has an act for leaving the camera steady on the actor’s face to give us a sense of mortality without saying a single word. 

The performances are excellent but it’s really Layne and James that stood out more because of their leading performances and realistic chemistry between each other. Tish and Fonny are a couple that’s realistic and the compassion that they share for one another didn’t feel fake. Layne is a newcomer to film, which completely shocks me because she has that face that looks familiar. But no, this a true breakout role. The only performances I knew James was from Amazon’s Homecoming and the Jesse Owens biopic Race. But there’s something about his performance as Fonny that felt true. It’s something that I would see myself playing if I was an actor.

Regina King plays Tish's mother in "If Beale Street Could Talk."

Outside of them, Regina King as Tish’s mother perhaps brings out the best performance of her career. Usually, I think she’s an underrated actress, and every scene she delivers in spades, especially the latter half of the film where she does to Puerto Rico to get things done. Could we see her being the frontrunner to win Best Supporting Actress this year? We shall see. I also really want to give a shoutout to Colman Domingo as Tish’s father providing some of the lighter moments.

It’s always a crime to see African-American men being imprisoned for crimes that they didn’t have any issue of being involved in. We the audience feel for Fonny and want him to be released from Prison after being accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios) so he could be with Tish and be ready the take care of his children before he’s born. But everything should come together when it’s all about the love we share with each other in times of struggle. This didn’t make me believe in love a lot more than I have before, but it feels like a beating heart that grows with compassion for these characters.

Also, need to give credit to composer Nicholas Britell for giving us another sweeping score that’s well used at the right moments. And the cinematography by James Laxton gives the film a beautiful look that uses a great color palette.

Does this compare to Moonlight? I wouldn’t say so. Moonlight is a far better experience and the emotional side of that felt more real. Here, I didn’t feel like the emotional weight was all the way there. But after a great first act that kept my attention for how it was getting all set up, especially the conflict between the Fonny and Tish’s baby situation, Beale Street tends to drag in the middle, making it sometimes feel a bit uneven in its storytelling.

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Nothing is predictable as there were some moments that came as a surprise. If Beale Street Could Talk has the appeal on a play just like Fences but in a good way. And just like every movie that I like that’s based off source material, I might want to read it after it was over.

In the end, If Beale Street Could Talk may not leave a humongous impact on me, but there’s so much that Jenkins wanted to give to his fans in this adaptation. It works well as a timeless romance, a family drama, and shows what it takes to love one another.  I do hope this will be in the conversation when the Oscars come around.

If Beale Street Could Talk is an exceptionally well-made and powerfully told drama that a talent like writer-director Barry Jenkins is able to capture the soul.

Grade: B+

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