If Beale Street Could Talk is the third film from director Barry Jenkins, Plan B, and Annapurna Productions.
Their follow up to the Oscar-winning Best Film Moonlight (2016), rooted firmly in the source material, Jenkins, again on double duty as writer and director, is proud to admit to staying faithful to the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name. In so naming his fifth novel (of the 13 books he authored), Baldwin borrowed a line from 1917’s Beale Street Blues, co-written and first released by the legendary William Christopher “W. C.” Handy (personal favourite by Louis Armstrong & the All Stars, 1954).
The story follows shy 19-year-old Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and aspiring 22 year old sculptor Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), who are in love. Their entwined childhoods flow from their fathers’ fast and lasting friendship. Their bond has blossomed into a tender regard and intense adoration, typical of first love. He is close to his dad Frank (Michael Beach) and as such, is a disappointment to his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian; Dominique Thorne), who bristle with delusions of bougiedom and an inflated sense of their own unassailable Christian worth. She is close with her parents, Joseph (Colman Domingo), Sharon (Regina King), and conscious, protective older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), with whom she lives in a converted New York Brownstone. They all embrace Fonny, his talent, and ethics, as part of the family.
Their love survives the shattering injustice of Fonny’s arrest and detention, standing accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. His true alibi is heart-breakingly dismissed as worthless. So, Frank and the Rivers family begin a robust pursuit of the legal means to prove his innocence. But, things become more desperate as Tish gathers her courage to announce some momentous news.
Jenkins continues his lyrical portrayal of intimacy between African Americans, demonstrating his own deep appreciation and understanding of the individual working parts of ‘Black America‘, which has evolved via Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and Moonlight. This time, Jenkins chooses to tell a non-linear story with frequent use of flashbacks, narrated by Tish over a few short years. Tish and Fonny are only just beginning to explore their newfound, adult intimacy. Coming from a place of innocence, it is, at once, both sweet and fraught with the knowledge that black men, seen as threatening, are emasculated at every opportunity and black women, seen as without virtue, are defeminised in turn.
Jenkins has the genius to not only identify the layers within a story, but can deftly and effectively translate it onto film. He is making a bold and unmistakable statement with each film, almost from scene to scene, and as a collective, defying the common pervading attitude of white Americans of ‘happy slaves‘ or the ignorant poor. As Buppies on the California West Coast (San Francisco in Medicine For Melancholy), inner-city poor in the Florida South (Miami in Moonlight) and blue collar working class in New York’s East Coast, Jenkins is declaring that we are everywhere, enjoying common customs, and creating a unique idyll rooted in family and community which can belie a poor existence or social prospects, if they exist.
He underlines this with Beale Street’s opening written Baldwin quotation: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee, represents a cornucopia of African American experience and potential – good and bad. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966, it was named “Home of the Blues” by an Act of Congress, in 1977, whilst whole sections were razed to the ground in the same period, rendering it a virtual ghost town. Jenkins has taken that very spirit and poured it all into this poetic adaptation, clearly proclaiming in his evolving three-dimensional depiction of the African American experience, that we are not a ubiquitous monoculture. It’s all there in his first 3 movies!
There is no doubt that awards season will be seduced by this film. Jenkins shows a surer hand in both his writing and directing. He again teams up with Moonlight‘s Nicholas Britell and James Laxton. Britell’s original cello-based score can again only be described as haunting, yet epic. His biblical and mythological referencing are peppered with Jenkins’ selections from the likes of Nina Simone and Billy Preston, which add a further sense of time and place. Laxton again provides astonishing cinematography, using colour and light not only as a mood enhancer, but also to seek out and champion the beauty of Harlem which, at times, rivals even Paris. We kid you not. Jenkins’ growing partnerships with key crew like these two enhances their understanding of the material and of African Americans, by extension. Whatever their background, this can only be a good thing for the future of African stories in cinema and assures Jenkins’ own vision.
As writer-director, he has created two characters whose love story, as painfully and beautifully depicted by the startling charm of Layne and James, could attain Romeo and Juliet-like status for our age, amidst our community. Its impossible not to be moved by their innocence tempered with the assurance of their absolute belief in their love for each other, again cleverly illustrated by using Tish’s perspective.
Domingo and Beach as the fathers turn in performances which embody the best of black men stepping up to take care of their families. You will certainly feel drawn to Joseph, who might move you to tears. You may feel an empathy for Frank, even as he is driven to do what no man should. But, it will warm your heart to see fortune smile on their story, where she has turned away from Fonny’s.
Brian Tyree Henry as newly released ex-con Daniel Carty fulfills the promise of his Atlanta performances in a side story of male friendship, which could have been dampened with exposition. Instead, you are transported into the midst of his fear, frustration, and incomprehension at the status quo. You cannot help but be affected by Carty’s plight and Henry’s brief, affecting performance.
Parris turns in another strong performance, who will give you a sense of deep satisfaction. But, it is King who should mesmerise critics and earn awards accolades for her portrayal of Sharon. Cinema has historically been dismissive of the complexities of black women’s experiences. Remember Chesya Burke’s usually one-dimensional Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Woman? Well, in a role which has been a long time coming, Sharon’s story is beautifully wrought by Jenkins and brilliantly rendered by King. Managing to tap into the intense emotion surrounding, among other things, Afro hair, Jenkins layers it into Sharon’s character as she embarks on a hard journey, making her so much more than just a fiercely protective mother. King is simply fantastic.
Perhaps the only weaknesses are a couple of scenes which feel unfinished and the Hunt women, who feel a little 2-dimensional. But, because we all know people like them, we can actually fill in the blanks. With so much truth and beauty in the face of adversity, the film’s ending may disappoint, but only because it reflects real life. In fact, it should actually drive home that such is the case with the entire film, for those who are unsure.
Jenkins has given us another ready-made classic, drawing on its predecessors Moonlight (2016), Medicine For Melancholy (2008), Love & Basketball (2000), The Wood (1999), Soul Food (1997), Before Sunrise (1995), Crooklyn (1994), Poetic Justice (1993), Boyz ‘n’ the Hood (1991), Roots (1977), Claudine, (1974) and Sounder (1972), which tell of love, family, community, love of the neighbourhood, hardship and, of course, the human spirit.
If Beale Street Could Talk premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9th, where it was nominated in two People’s Choice awards. It screened at the London Film Festival on 20th October, and the soundtrack was released on 9th November via Lakeshore Records, to be followed by a vinyl pressing.
Barry Jenkins is surely destined for top accolades with this poetic film.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris,Michael Beach, Brian Tyree Henry, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne
UK release date: 8th February 2019 | (Limited US release 14th December).