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Review: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Premise: Based on the novel by James Baldwin. Set in 1970s Harlem, a young African American woman (KiKi Layne) becomes pregnant and the father of her child (Stephan James) is imprisoned. She tries to prove his innocence.

What Works: If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautifully crafted film. It’s simultaneously rugged with a gritty sense of life and delicate in the way it renders intricate emotional moments between the characters. That’s evident in the cinematography by James Laxton, who previously collaborated with director Barry Jenkins on 2016’s Moonlight. The visual style of If Beale Street Could Talk is natural and yet stylized. The filmmakers use shadows and colors in a way that gives scenes a specific emotional temperature but the visuals retain a texture that is in keeping with a realistic style. If Beale Street Could Talk is a story about goodness and love and it takes on those subjects in a way that isn’t corny or sentimental. The story centers on Tish and Fonny, a young African American couple played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James. Their love is intense and earnest but it’s strained when Fonny is arrested and falsely accused of sexual assault and then Tish discovers she is pregnant, putting her at odds with her religious mother. This film is about a couple hanging onto each other when the world seems bent upon tearing them apart and their struggle and devotion comes through in the film. The success of the love story is due to the writing and direction and especially the performances by KiKi Layne and Stephan James. The movie makes us see the humanity of these characters. That’s important as it supports the film’s other major theme. If Beale Street Could Talk is about the African American experience and specifically the presumption of guilt that mainstream white culture casts on young black men. The film addresses what a culture of incarceration does to people, both in and out of prison, and that’s elucidated in an extraordinary monologue by Brian Tyree Henry. If Beale Street Could Talk is a political picture but not in the obvious way of other recent films like The Hate U Give; this movie puts its drama first and the humanity of the characters opens up the audience to that political message so much more effectively than a lot of recent activist pictures.

What Doesn’t: The narrative is told out of sequence. If Beale Street Could Talk begins with Tish visiting Fonny in jail and telling him about her pregnancy. From there the story alternates between the investigation into Fonny’s imprisonment and flashbacks to better days. There are a few spots in which the sequence of events is confusing. It’s never detrimental to the story but it isn’t always immediately obvious where in the timeline certain scenes take place.

Bottom Line: If Beale Street Could Talk is a nearly perfect movie. Its performances and filmmaking craft are extraordinary and it uses cinema’s capacity to create empathy in a way that is revealing and quietly subversive.

Episode: #733 (January 13, 2019)