“If Beale Street Could Talk,” the James Baldwin tale of young lovers doomed by an unfair imprisonment of the young man, is the latest in the recent “black canon” of films about being black in America.
Director Barry Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” improbably — and in our eyes, deservedly — won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017, draws from his lead actors KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) simmering sexuality and anger that lies barely restrained. As he did with Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight,” Jenkins elicits performances that produce an unrelenting tension throughout the film.
Baldwin’s intense and poetic reaction to the racism of his 1974 America is filmed melodramatically and yet sparingly by Jenkins. In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, Tish, a counter girl in the perfume department of a mostly white department store, narrates her treatment by customers — the stares and touching —telling us all we need to know about the reactions of black and white, male and female, to a pretty young black woman.
A conversation that begins casually ends with a dramatic relating of what life in prison has done to Fonny’s friend Danny (Brian Tyree Henry). It’s the subtle set-up for why Danny won’t end up providing an alibi for Fonny, and yet it is much more than that. Danny’s story takes us deep into the emotional toll prison takes on young black men.
While its trajectory is one of impending tragedy, “If Beale Street Could Talk” has its comedic moments, especially the scene in which the parents and siblings of the two lovers gather in Tish’s parents’ tiny apartment and react to the news that she is pregnant. Tish’s loving, practical mother (Regina King), and Fonny’s “holy roller” mother (Aunjanue Ellis) are just two of Jenkins’ black characters that have dimension, power, and nuance. The few white characters remain stereotypes, in the case of the white cop (Ed Skrein), garishly so.
Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay from Baldwin’s novel, has an impeccable sense of time and space, creatively using flashbacks to jolt the audience into the past or present.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” joins films such as “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Green Book,” “Hidden Figures,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Moonlight,” “Mudbound,” “The First Purge,” ”Get Out,” “Marshall,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and “Fences”— all of which we’ve reviewed on this site in the past two years — and many others in examining the black experience for white and black audiences.
This is an important and exciting moment in black cinema, one that begs for an overall analysis and interpretation of these and other films of the genre. Some of the films, like “Green Book” and “Hidden Figures” — both period pieces —encode a positive message of black progress and racial integration. Others, including “Get Out” and “Beale Street,” are much more negative, the former featuring vile white people engaged in horrific genetic experimentation with black bodies, the latter deploying Baldwin’s voice of anger and rage to vilify whites and the American system of justice. Perhaps together, and with the other films, some larger truth about the black experience, whether historical or contemporary, is being told.