Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry
Director: Barry Jenkins
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
This line, spoken by Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) while visiting her lover Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) at a prison visiting area, is at the heart of Barry Jenkins’s swooning adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk. The film’s understanding of Baldwin’s prose and ideological constructs informs the aesthetic choices (from characters looking directly into the camera), to the way emotional breakthroughs are delivered through literal and figurative obstacles. Above all, Jenkins (by way of Baldwin) gets at how America’s prejudices often obliterate the integrity of authentic love.
From the outset, If Beale Street Could Talk uses a fractured narrative which dips in and out of Tish’s recollections. Her pregnancy with Fonny’s child informs the structure, not to mention familial strife, even as Fonny remains in prison awaiting trial for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Though he insists he didn’t commit the crime (and has various witnesses attesting to his alibi), the justice system is set up to incriminate African American men for simply living in a certain geographical area. During an early scene, Tish admits being pregnant to her mother, Sharon (Regina King) and father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), which creates a palpable sense of tension in the room. Tish’s body language is cautious, hesitant, and expecting the worse; she is, after all, young and unmarried, with the father of her child in jail. When her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) stands up and gives her a vote of confidence, things lead to an extraordinary sequence where Fonny’s judgmental mother (Aunjanue Ellis) attempts to use the Bible to shame and condemn, only to be beat down (literally) by Tish’s family unit. It’s a moment of startling pain and empathy; reaffirming the idea that no matter the hardships, we all need each other in order to survive.
As he did with Moonlight, Jenkins is working in an impressionistic register; informing scenes with a melancholy sweep which gives us an emotional headspace in which to internalize the narrative. The dreamy aesthetic works both as a shorthand for love’s unpredictable ebb and flow, as well as conjuring an almost displaced sense of time. Rather than using stylistic flourishes as empty posturing, however, Jenkins situates the lyricism as a means for tapping into darker, more uncomfortable truths. For example, a shot where Sharon arrives at an airport in Puerto Rico is filmed in a tableau bursting with color and slow-motion, emphasizing the mother’s stern determination to save her daughter’s situation. The very next scene, however, upends this by showing her fidgeting uneasily with a variety of wigs in order to appear more confident. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and King (who is sublime throughout) absolutely nails the combination of desperation and pathos.
There are other times where the film achieves this kind of balance, such as a long conversation between Fonny and old school buddy Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). While things begin jovially, the discussion takes a somber turn once Daniel begins talking about his time in prison. His admission of white men being the devil and his irrevocable trauma for what he’s endured locates the sense of hopelessness African Americans feel while navigating a system built to subjugate them. Therefore, Jenkins’s film is not only a tragic love story, but also a portrait of the dehumanization (physically and spiritually) people of color experience through America’s racist systems.
At times, If Beale Street Could Talk traffics in stereotypes (Ed Skrein’s racist cop, Diego Luna’s saintly Hispanic waiter, and Dave Franco’s woke Jewish realtor come to mind), but such archetypes simply reinforce the different forces swirling around Tish and Fonny’s romantic courtship. There are evil forces in the world, and benevolent ones. There are also innocent forces, as evident in the birth of Tish and Fonny’s child, who wails at a world ready to devour him. This duality; of tragedy and hope—where the father remains unlawfully caged while the child roams freely— is central to Baldwin’s mix of cynicism and conviction. For his part, Jenkins honors this ideology while also making something that feels very much his own; full of life, love, and heartbreak.