It’s been a busy year for movies aimed at black audiences that have also crossed over to general audiences, with the over-praised “Black Panther” and the under-praised (and far better) “Black BlackKklansman” selling the most tickets. Now there’s an adaptation of James Baldwin’s angry and moving 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” And in the hands of writer-director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), it works as an up-close, personal, and uncomfortable look at life among black residents of New York City in what appears to be the early 1970s (no dates are given, but no cell phones are seen, and the story is timeless).
It’s specifically about Alonzo, who everyone calls Fonny (Stephan James), and Tish (KiKi Layne), who have been close friends since they were young kids, but suddenly find themselves falling in love. He’s 22 and she’s 19, and they’re on track to have a happy life together. Unfortunately, two situations have arisen: He’s in jail, and she’s pregnant.
Thank goodness they have emotional support from their families. Well, no ... only Tish does. When she breaks the pregnancy news to them, her mom (Regina King) and dad Colman Domingo) go through a brief moment of quiet surprise, but soon they’re celebrating the news. But when they invite Fonny’s parents over to hear about it, only his short-tempered dad (Michael Beach) is happy. His bible-thumping mom accuses Tish of being “the destruction of my son” in one of the film’s most devastatingly emotional scenes.
This is a film filled with lots of highs and as many lows for the two protagonists. The reason Fonny has gone to jail is kept murky until the script finally provides the answer. When it’s finally explained, everything launches off into a whole different direction, and even a new location, and a concentration on one of the parents, before coming back to focus on the strained but loving relationship and circumstances going on with Tish and Fonny.
Having not read the Baldwin book, I don’t know what structure he used to tell the complicated story, but Jenkins does it via a series of well-placed flashbacks that build up a backstory of life for Tish and Fonny before prison soured everything. We see them playing together as young kids, and we see them, years later, on the night they realize what they actually mean to each other. These sequences are mostly done through the eyes and memories of Tish, but also show other people in Fonny’s life, including an old friend, Danny (Brian Tyree Henry), who convincingly tells a tale of how hard it is to be a young black man in America, as well as a realtor, Levy (Dave Franco), in an apartment-hunting scene that’s probably not necessary in the film but shows that there are some white people that these folks can trust.
Jenkins has a searing story to tell here, but one of the reasons it’s so compelling to watch is that he does it with a great deal of subtlety. There are messages of how the system is rigged against black citizens, but Jenkins and his actors make it all flow instead of ordering viewers to pay attention. Even beyond the humanistic performances, Jenkins’ use of music helps make the film work on a different level. A mournful string score can lead to a lighter, mood-changing sound, which can then in turn change up another 180 degrees when someone goes to a turntable and puts on some Al Green or Nina Simone or Miles Davis.
The film never strays away from the race problems in America, shown most directly through Fonny’s treatment and eventual incarceration due to the twisted mind of a bad cop. But it remains a love story at its center. The ending may leave some viewers wanting something more conclusive. But it’s safe to say that the powerful concluding scene is a combination of serene happiness and terrible sadness.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins
With KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry