If Beale Street Could Talk

Nineteen year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and twenty-two year-old Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) bathed together as children, so they never thought much about bodies as they grew up Tish tells us. But now they find themselves in love and expecting, an event that thrills the supportive Rivers family but causes strife with Fonny's rigorously religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis). Yet a larger obstacle looms - Fonny's imprisonment on a trumped up rape charge engineered by a racist cop (Ed Skrein) with a grudge in "If Beale Street Could Talk."

Laura's Review: B+

Writer/director Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight") has the privilege of being the first to bring an English language adaptation of a James Baldwin novel to the screen and he has produced a pure and gentle story of love enduring an onslaught of hate in 1970's Harlem. Baldwin used New Orleans' Beale Street, where his father, Louis Armstrong and jazz were born, as a symbol for the expression of black culture and community in all American black neighborhoods, a concept which Jenkins brings to loving cinematic fruition in his third film. 'You should never have to look at someone you love through glass,' an older Tish laments as we watch her young self walking through the streets of New York, James Laxton's camera arcing overhead, towards a Fonny who assures her 'I've never been more ready for anything in my life.' You can feel the love and respect these two have for each other. Jenkins then jumps into the near future, Fonny in jail, Tish grappling with imparting news generally frowned upon. She needn't have worried, mother Sharon (Regina King) warmly embracing her, father Joe (Colman Domingo) immediately calling for celebratory Hennessy which he wishes to share with his best friend Frank Hunt (Michael Beach), Fonny's father. The gathering is a disaster, Mrs. Hunt and her two daughters so insulting ('I always knew you'd be the ruin of my son'), Frank belts her. Sharon reminds the woman she is talking about her grandchild, but the female Hunts march out, their behavior all the more egregious in the face of Tish's goodness. The bulk of the story is given to Tish's struggle, first as a pregnant teen, then as a single mother, her job at a department store perfume counter targeting her for unwanted male attention, their approaches dependent on their skin color. Flashbacks chart her and Fonny's loving, hesitant courtship and friends like Pedrocito (Diego Luna), the Hispanic waiter who amplifies their dinner-date-on-a-budget, and Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), just out of jail, a signpost to Fonny's future. We see how Fonny's protection of Tish and his subsequent defense from the store owner where the incident took place enrages Skein and the disillusionment of the lawyer, Hayward (Finn Wittrock), engaged to help Fonny after his arrest (an undernourished story thread). It is the fierce and loving Sharon who travels all the way to Puerto Rico, where rape victim Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) has fled, to try and convince her to testify only to be shattered by another woman's pain. Jenkins has fashioned an achingly beautiful work that celebrates black love, his cinematographer employing a shallow focus to keep his characters front and center, sometimes in literal portraits, Fonny at one point disappearing into the background blur. Water is a throughline, from the ocean surrounding Manhattan to the bath in which Tish delivers her child, sound design suggesting sinking under water as Fonny contemplates his sentence. Nicholas Britell's stunning violin and cello score suggests the initial hope of new love, deepening as the film progresses. KiKi Lane and Stephan James create a couple of such good heart and pure intent, we grieve for the theft of their happiness. In one beautiful scene, Fonny enlists his realtor Levy (Dave Franco) to create an imaginary home in the barebones warehouse space he can afford to Tish's dawning delight. As Tish's mother, Regina Hall is much bolder than her daughter, willing to confront just about anything to nurture Tish and Fonny's love. Yet as moving as "If Beale Street Could Talk" can be, Jenkins' film leaves us with a sense of hopelessness, an enduring injustice. The bright young lovers of the film's beginning are tired and worn at film's end, their son having never known his father outside a prison visiting room. Grade:

Robin's Review: B+

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) loves the father of her child, her best friend since they were just kids, Fonny Hunt (Stephan James). Their life together will be idyllic, they know. Then, he is unjustly accused of rape and faces a long time in prison if convicted, forcing Tish and their families to find a way to prove his innocence in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Author James Baldwin wrote his novel, of the title, in 1974, telling of the plight of a young black man falsely accused and jailed without bail until his trial, which keeps getting pushed farther and farther off. It is about the anger, fear and hope, and lack of hope, of a black man incarcerated in a white legal system. Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins adapts and directs Baldwin’s story and the biggest impression I had with Jenkins’s telling is that, in the black communities across the country, this is current events, not drama from 40 years ago. 19-year old Tish is sweet, loving and kind – and unmarried and pregnant with Fonny’s baby. He is an aspiring young sculptor with ambitions and hopes of a good life together with Tish and their baby. This dream is shattered when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit, and must sit in prison awaiting his trial. You see his brave front, from the beginning of his ordeal, slowly dimming as he fights to simply survive prison. Both families, after Fonny’s mother finally accepts the “situation,” rally behind him and Tish and work hard to get justice. Their story is about the frustration and helplessness they feel about a system that imprisons a man before he is found guilty – because of his race. Although set in the early 70s, this feels all too of the now. At first, as I watched the sweetness and love between Tish and Fonny, I thought the film was going to be on the saccharine side. Then, there is a moment when Fonny defends Tish’s honor and is confronted by a bigoted cop. The film changed dramatically from his moment and the author’s anger at the system is palpably delivered by Barry Jenkins and his very talented cast.