When James Baldwin’s lovely, lacerating “If Beale Street Could Talk” was published, it was in the spring of 1974. That was 44 years ago. Forty-four years. Think about that; then see Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-worthy adaptation and prepare to despair over the lack of change in a criminal justice system that still targets - yes, TARGETS - young black men for incarceration. And those are the ones who aren’t shot, choked or beaten to death before they make it to a holding cell. It ate at Baldwin then, and it should eat at us now.
Jenkins assures that it will with his arresting follow-up to his Best Picture-winner, “Moonlight,” with a call to arms using two close-knit Harlem families to put a human face on how easy it is for an innocent man to spend decades behind bars for the crime of being black. That it’s told within the auspices of a passionate love story only adds to the empathetic impact of a composition riffing on the jazz stylings Baldwin found so inspiring.
It begins in the early 1970s with a gorgeous overhead shot in which the camera swoops down upon Tish (superb newcomer Kiki Layne) and Fonny (“Selma’s” outstanding Stephan James), two young people blind to everything but an affection they’ve shared since they were toddlers. Only now, things are getting serious, as they take the pledge to consummate their love. For a few brief hours, the world is their oyster; with optimism overflowing into the nearby Hudson River. Flash forward to the news Tish is pregnant. She can’t wait to tell Fonny, who learns of his impending fatherhood while sitting behind bars, terrified and alone. How he ended up there is something Jenkins’ holds back until we’ve gotten to know Fonny well enough to believe him incapable of any crime, let alone the one he’s been accused.
It’s an innocence that makes no difference to a court system that only sees poor, young black men as easy pickings for district attorneys itchy to up their conviction rate. Many of these patsies, like Fonny, are left to rot in a cell because they have neither the money nor means to hire decent legal representation. But Tish and her family - Dad, Joe (a commanding Colman Domingo), Mom, Sharon (Oscar-contender Regina King), and sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) - are determined to prevail by putting up a united front. Same for Fonny’s clan - Dad, Frank (Michael Beach), Mom (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters, Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne).
Like any jazz ensemble, Jenkins sets the music in motion by gathering all the players (except Fonny) into one room, establishing recurring themes for ensuing solos, and setting the tempo. It begins with Tish revealing her impending motherhood, news eliciting a combination of anguish and bliss, emotions that are dealt with in different ways by different members of the families. What keeps them united is the determination to spring Fonny. No small feat.
The plan includes a somewhat compassionate lawyer (Finn Wittrock) and tracking down two key witnesses, one who is believed to have fled to Puerto Rico, and the other, an ex-con the DA is putting the screws to in an effort to keep him from corroborating Fonny’s not-so-tight alibi. That’s the plot, but what puts you in rhythm with the story is Jenkins’ thoughtful, and thought-provoking, examination of the three facets of love - romantic, familial and friendship - that never fail to provide hope, even when things look bleak.
For both families, poverty is the prevailing albatross. But that’s not what Baldwin nor Jenkins wants us to see. They want us to see the pride, along with the togetherness, that provides the courage to keep moving forward against impossible odds. It’s all these struggling people have. By no means are they alone, nor is their plight anything new. But experiencing the bigotry and injustice through the trusting eyes of someone as pure as Tish shakes you.
She helplessly watches as the system continually beats Fonny down, stirring anger and frustration in her as her man sits rotting in a cell while justice crawls at a snail’s pace. You feel for her as she rages against the machine. It’s intense, made more so by Kiki Layne’s ability to rise above the inherent melodrama to render Tish believable and crushingly sympathetic. It’s quite a performance, topped only by King as Tish’s tiger mom, a woman willing to fight tooth and nail for her daughter’s happiness. Their bond, their strength is true to Baldwin’s defense of women who were as much a victim of white men as blacks.
He demands respect for them; so does Jenkins, who consistently finds beauty in their everyday existence. This is movingly illustrated in the film’s best scene, a fascinating psychological observation in which Tish, having taken a job at department store perfume counter, describes in voice over how people of each gender and race approach her differently when she offers them sample scents. Last, and certainly least, among the masses are the white males, passive aggressive and subtly demeaning in how they treat her. It’s just a two- or three-minute montage, but it’s a prime example of the craftsmanship achieved by Jenkins, cinematographer James Laxton, production designer Mark Friedberg, and editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders.
Then there’s King, the queen of character actors. How an actress can reach this deep into your soul elicits awe. But then that’s King in everything she appears. Still, this is something special even for her, a performance that’s quietly fierce and full of fight. Her cub is hurting and this mama bear is going to move heaven and earth to do what she can to make it go away, even hopping a plane to Puerto Rico to confront a traumatized mother and do everything she can to bring the wounded woman back to New York to help clear Fonny. That scene alone will get her a long-overdue Oscar nod.
Of all the actors, James is saddled with the hardest part, playing a quarter of his scenes behind Plexiglas in the Riker’s visiting center. The rest of the time, he pops up in numerous flashbacks to when Fonny and Tish saw nothing but a bright future for themselves and the family they hoped to raise outside the burdens of racism. And that’s what “Beale Street” really comes down to in the end. It’s the hope for a better life, a chance to be unencumbered, and a crazy pipe dream of one day when everyone is equal, and young black men no longer need fear being locked up, the key thrown away.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Cast includes Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo and Brian Tyree Henry.
(R for language and some sexual content.)