Written by Barry Jenkins, from the novel by James Baldwin
Directed by Barry Jenkins
The Republican establishment won’t know what to say about Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s about a man falsely accused of rape, which as I write this is the Great Fear of the Fox News crowd. But it’s also about how the American justice system assumes black men are guilty – an obvious fact that today’s conservatives refuse to acknowledge.
Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight isn’t as good as his Oscar winner, but few movies reach that height. But it’s still a riveting, sad, funny, sexy, heartwarming film about what it means to be black in America, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel (which I haven’t read). This is the first time that Baldwin’s estate has allowed anyone to adapt one of his novels to the screen. (I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished work of non-fiction.)
Beale Street is a love story, but the lovers have been cruelly separated. The central character, Tish (KiKi Layne), a black and pregnant 19-year-old living with her parents and sister in New York City, narrates the film. Her upstanding and loving boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) is in prison for a rape he could not possibly have committed. Tish and her family do everything they can to prove his innocence, but he’s black, and that’s enough for the system to find him guilty.
The film doesn’t treat rape lightly. Nor does it treat the victim, who picked Fonny in a lineup, as a bad person. Emily Rios, in a single scene, plays her as a woman in deep shock, wishing beyond hope that she can forget a horrible memory. She clearly made a mistake at the police station, but she can’t bare to go through that experience again.
Flashbacks of Tish and Fonny’s wonderful romance take up a large part of the movie. Fonny comes off as the salt of the earth (remember this is all from Tish’s point of view). He’s a talented artist working in wood, and an affectionate and caring lover. He adores Tish with all his heart. In one sweet and funny scene, he gets a Jewish landlord to help Tish imagine how an empty space could turn into a home.
The film fleshes out other characters to make them human. Tish’s and Fonny’s respective families have very different reactions to the out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Black reality pops up throughout the film. Tish gets a job at the perfume counter of a department store. Her narration explains (and the images illustrate) the differences between how white and black men react to her.
Like BlacKkKlansman, Beale Street is set in the 1970s. But unlike Lee’s more commercial movie, it doesn’t play with the setting. There are no outrageous afros or wild clothing. In fact, I assumed the setting was the early 60s until one reference about hippies (in the scene with the Jewish landlord). I was told, after seeing the film, that it was set specifically in 1974.
But the year it was set hardly matters. Things haven’t changed much since.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens Friday.