CN+R FILM REVIEW

Bleak odyssey of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ has optimistic message

BY NEIL MORRIS, News + Record Critic
Posted 1/8/19

If Beale Street Could Talk

Grade: B +

Director: Barry Jenkins

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Beach, and Brian Tyree Henry

MPAA …

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CN+R FILM REVIEW

Bleak odyssey of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ has optimistic message

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Posted

If Beale Street Could Talk

Grade: B +

Director: Barry Jenkins

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Beach, and Brian Tyree Henry

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Lifted like a tone poem from James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is an intimate, aching mediation on the African-American experience. It’s a rather subversive story, as writer-director Barry Jenkins demonstrates how even the purity and innocence of a young couple’s romance isn’t immune from a panoply of prejudices. It’s a bleak odyssey but one caped by an oddly optimistic message that love can, indeed, conquer all.

Jenkins’s nonlinear narrative, set in 1970s Harlem, begins with Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) informing her family that she’s pregnant by her imprisoned betrothed, Fonny Hunt (Stephan James). While Tish’s family, including her mother Sharon (Regina King), celebrates the news, it doesn’t suit Fonny’s uppity mom (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters, who view Fonny as an embarrassment and Tish as a low-class interloper. This debut scene is fraught with the cultural complications that permeate the entire film. For example, the audience finds itself rooting for Fonny’s father (Michael Beach), a buddy of Tish’s dad who embraces her union with his son, until he violently assaults his wife for her disrespect towards Tish and her family.

As the plot unfolds, we witness the origins of Tish and Fonny’s coupling and their idyllic plans for the future. Harsh reality constantly intrudes, including the difficulties in securing employment and housing. Even the smallest of graces, like a white landlord (Dave Franco) who rents an unfinished apartment to the young black couple, feel like major societal triumphs. The spectre of institutional racism hovers throughout, foreshadowed by a visit from Fonny’s ex-con friend (Brian Tyree Henry), whose monologue on the perils of prison is one of the most arresting film scenes of the year.

Fonny is eventually framed by a crooked cop for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, an injustice that serves as the fulcrum for the film’s less affecting final third. Sharon’s visit to Puerto Rico to convince the rape victim to clear Fonny feels like a diversion—the plight of vulnerable crime victims, especially female minorities without means being pressured by nefarious forces, is too weighty to be fleshed out in a subplot. However, the sequence does afford King with a vehicle that will likely guarantee her a supporting actress Oscar nomination.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” ends without victory but on a note of hopefulness, that the bonds of love and family are more enduring than division and hate. It’s not a tidy ending, but life rarely affords those.

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