‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ will leave you wondering, pondering and contemplating
If Beale Street Could Talk (Rated C)
Cast: Stephan James, Kiki Layne, Regina King
Genre: Crime drama/Romance
Beale Street in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee, has come to be known as the home of the blues – that genre of music blending R&B, jazz and southern American folk, featuring crooners lamenting the hardships of life, love and loss.
And while set in Harlem, New York City, the 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” by legendary American writer James Baldwin, is like a great blues song, tackling love, loss and the often-unfair nature of life.
Nearly 45 years after the book’s release, and more than 30 years after Baldwin’s death, the film version – like a great blues song – touches on the highs and lows of life, in an eminently and possibly (for many) uncomfortably relatable way.
Set in early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dreams of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.
Of course, the story of Tish and Fonny’s love is a major part of the film, but this is also a heartwarming family drama.
But even more so, this is a powerful examination of some major societal issues in the 1970s that continue to plague us to this very day. In many ways, some of these issues may be even worse today, as the persecution and prosecution of black men by police forces and judicial systems is even more an issue in the forefront of our minds than probably ever before.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is directed and written by Barry Jenkins, who just two years ago won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for co-writing 2016’s “Moonlight”, becoming only the second black director in the Academy Awards’ now 90 years to direct a movie that went on to win Best Picture (following Steve McQueen in 2013 for “12 Years A Slave”).
Jenkins has again crafted a fine film here. Though perhaps not as surprising or controversial as “Moonlight”, there are some of what are shaping up to be Jenkins themes and hallmarks. As such, similarly, we have the romantic drama against the backdrop of family problems and serious societal issues.
There’s also a familiar Jenkins look to the picture – a good thing!
Jenkins seems to enjoy framing his subjects like a portrait; we are made to stare directly into the eyes of the actors, in close-ups and in medium shots, where we can see every crevice or dimple or mole or wrinkle. Their faces become like canvases. They are celebrated like artwork.
The performances are also a work of art. A lot is being said about the performance of Regina King, one of the very best actors alive today. Consistently, year-in, year-out, she’s delivering award-worthy and award-winning performances on television and in movies. King just won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role here in “If Beale Street Could Talk”. And it’s always great to see her.
But for me, the real magic lies with Stephan James and Kiki Layne as Fonny and Tish, particularly James.
Keep a close eye on this incredible Canadian actor, who played Jesse Owens in “Race” (2016), and is currently starring alongside Julia Roberts in the Amazon Prime Video TV-series “Homecoming”, for which the 25-year-old received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Drama.
He has a promising career ahead of him, as does Layne, a relative newcomer who holds her own against an unbelievably talented cast, which includes strong turns from especially Aunjanue Ellis (TV’s “Quantico”), Michael Beach (“Soul Food” and TV’s “ER”), Teyonah Parris (TV’s “Mad Men”) and Brian Tyree Henry (“Widows” and TV’s “Atlanta”).
And don’t miss one of the most powerful and uncomfortable scenes of a family gathering in a long time, involving some “real talk” discussions to which far too many Bahamians can relate.
It may not pack the punch of “Moonlight”, and more than likely shouldn’t be directly compared to that groundbreaking picture. But “If Beale Street Could Talk” is accessible, and will leave the audience wondering, pondering and contemplating – just like a decent blues album.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.