REVIEW: “If Beale Street Could Talk”
In his latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk”, Academy Award winning Director, Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s 1974 book for the big screen. As a dark skin woman with natural hair, seeing beautiful brown men and women cast in lead roles within this love story was so empowering. In this regard, the film has left an indelible impression in my memory.
Newcomer Kiki Layne is so beautiful on screen. She’s immaculate in the role of Tish Rivers. Despite the brief sexual scenes, “Beale Street” is a family film and is necessary viewing, especially for teenage girls to see Layne in this coming of age role as a 19-year-old who finds out that she’s pregnant by her childhood sweetheart, Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James).
The cinematography in “Beale Street” is stunning and award worthy. From the opening scene where Tish and Fonny are walking and the camera holds on their gaze as they lock eyes, there’s no question that the two are deeply in-love. However, this is also a drawback of the film. There were so many non-verbal scenes to reiterate their love it seemed as if Jenkins didn’t trust his lead actors to do their job in conveying that they were in a relationship. Moments in the film felt as if you were watching the director’s cut where Jenkins wanted to include every loving scene where the couple made eye contact and held hands.
Many of the scenes with Tish and Fonny didn’t move the story forward, instead we had to rely on Tish to narrate action scenes that should have been depicted—i.e. Fonny’s arrest and the police lineup where a racist cop led a rape victim to believe Fonny was her attacker. Having the characters talk about it instead of having an actual visual of such critical scenes in the storyline, made the film fall flat in several areas.
In Jenkins previous film, “Moonlight”, he did a phenomenal job with providing in-depth storytelling that took the lead characters from childhood, throughout their teenage years and then adulthood. Despite the open ending, I left the movies feeling full because all of the characters and plot lines were seamlessly woven together. In “Beale Street” when Tish’s family decides to call Fonny’s family to share the pregnancy news, their interaction almost immediately goes from 0 to 100. Between a verbal and physical altercation and a spat that becomes so contentious so quickly that it’s humorous, the scene when the two families came together felt like a stage play.
While Aunjanue Ellis is incredible in her role of Mrs. Hunt, Fonny’s holier-than-thou mother, she’s grossly underutilized in having only one scene in the entire film. It’s implied that Fonny comes from an upper middle class household and Tish narrates that Mrs. Hunt felt as if she wasn’t good enough for Fonny. However the social economic gap between the families wasn’t apparent given the fact that Tish’s father Joseph Rivers (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s father Frank Hunt (Michael Beach) are great friends who drink together and conspire to get money to pay for Fonny’s legal fees by stealing and reselling expensive clothes. So there’s no visual context or elaboration for the audience to understand where Mrs. Hunt’s disdain for Tish stems from.
When Tish’s mother, Sharon Rivers (Regina King) travels to Puerto Rico to speak to the rape victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) about recanting her statement implicating Fonny, that scene felt out of place to have Sharon go on behalf of her future son-in-law and not his own mother. That would have been a phenomenal moment to get more backstory on Mrs. Hunt and for both mothers, soon to be grandmothers, to bond over their common goal of seeking justice for Fonny.
Outside of one b-roll shot with a young Tish and Fonny taking baths together as kids do, the film held at their present day ages. There was no mention that Fonny was college bound and then Tish’s pregnancy derails his plans…In actuality, Fonny, who was an aspiring carpenter, working with tools he had stolen from trade school, didn’t seem to be that good of a catch. If anything, Fonny seemed to be holding Tish back. He was four years older yet had little to show for himself.
At 19-years-old, Tish is beautiful, bright and intelligent with the world at her fingertips. With Jenkins also being the film’s screenwriter, I wish there was some creative license taken where he gave Tish some goals and/or a hobby—what did she aspire to do outside of being Fonny’s wife and a mother? The audience isn’t privy to whether or not she’s graduated from high school or college, we just know that she works at a perfume counter.
In addition to a somewhat surface level experience with Tish, Jenkins misses opportunities to really give her sister Ernestine Rivers (Teyonah Parris) a purpose. When Tish announces her pregnancy, Ernestine’s initial reaction implies jealousy then switches to joy. We next see Ernestine being protective of her younger sister as Fonny’s mother and sisters hurl insults at Tish. In the third and final scene with Ernestine, she and Tish go to lunch. Again, the audience isn’t privy to what she does for a living. If Ernestine for example, worked in the mall at the perfume counter, that would have been a great segue to show that she helped Tish to get a job. In the beginning of the film when Tish tells Fonny she’s pregnant, a line taken directly from the “Beale Street” book and included in the film is, “Mama and Sis will take care of me, you ain’t got to worry” yet Ernestine wasn’t present when Tish gives birth. Because we know so little about Ernestine and she played such a insignificant role in advancing the story, Ernestine could have been discussed and not seen and it wouldn’t have impacted the storyline.
Where Jenkins did do a phenomenal job with a supporting character is with Fonny’s friend, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) who is definitely worthy of a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the masterful way in which he commands your attention in explaining the physical and mental tolls of being incarcerated. His monologues, especially the reference to lacking adequate legal representation when he’s wrongfully arrested and subsequently convicted of car theft, was a powerful foreshadowing of Fonny’s future.
The film does an excellent job in humanizing Fonny as an inmate in showing how a prison sentence has a domino effect on the whole family, not just the person incarcerated. It’s easy to overlook the fact that due to poverty and racial profiling young men like Fonny, who are fathers, sons, brothers and friends lose their lives within the inept criminal justice system and their absence is felt generationally.
While there are gaps within the film’s storyline, the beautiful and endearing portrayals of love and family as well as the cultural relevance to the plight of African Americans within the prison justice system makes seeing “If Beale Street Could Talk” worth while.