Review: Barry Jenkins' 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Is a Stiff Drink of Truth
If Beale Street Could Talk’s original writer James Baldwin published the story in 1974. Forty-four years later a second story-teller, Barry Jenkins, has crafted a visual lyrical poem out of Baldwin’s raw and impassioned words. The story begins with two golden-hearted youths, Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alfonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephen James) learning simultaneously that they are having a baby and that Fonny is going to prison for a crime he did not commit.
Baldwin wrote a line in the book, “Love brought you here.” That line became the cornerstone on which this production was built. Love was tangible between the cast and crew, who held a prayer-circle before going on stage to introduce the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Translated to the screen, this love left no room for sentimentality. Only the truth mattered.
The story If Beale Street Could Talk has to tell wears no rose-colored glasses. It’s a stiff drink of truth. A truth too unbearable to be real when it was written 40 years ago. That truth hasn’t evolved in the decades since is a cruelty beyond measure. Laced with images of men behind bars, working in the fields long after slavery was abolished, or thrust against cop cars surrounded by cops with contemptuous grins a picture begins to form that slavery never ended. It evolved but it did not change.
Daniel Carty, a friend of Fonny’s, breaks down this idea over a kitchen table-top placed over a bathtub in a seedy New York apartment. He did two-years hard time for stealing a car. He did not commit grand theft auto, but the little bit of pot he had carried a worse sentence. So, he bargained out. Played brazenly by Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel talks about the fear prison guards instill in inmates. Guards have the power to do anything at any moment. Plenty of media has explored the inhumanity of living in a cage, but few have done it with the eloquence of Baldwin’s words and the power of Henry’s craft. He will see awards for this speech.
And it’s not just Henry. The entire cast will be in the conversation when it’s time to decide who will go home with a trophy. Ensemble performances have crafted many of Hollywoods greatest films. Great directors push outstanding actors who drive one another to bring to life a message of vital importance. The Godfather taught us about family and that greed corrupts absolutely. Do the Right Thing brought out a seething hatred all human beings feel at being oppressed. Real Women Have Curves taught women to love their bodies and encouraged them to forge their own paths, despite familial differences.
Jenkins is teaching us that love is greater. It is the best weapon to fight hate. It is not a gun or a sword, but a trojan horse. Romantic love, familial love, the love of a friend, and the love of humanity pop up in the darkest moments of the film to remind us that love cannot be killed, only transformed. The opening shot of the movie is Fonny and Tish walking down a street by themselves holding hands. Every moment of hate, conflict, and pain in the film can be brought back to this moment, back to the idea that when you’re with the people you love nothing else matters.
Mr. Rivers (Coleman Domingo) passionately details how love can win over drinks with Mr. James (Michael Beach). James is losing hope. The woman who accused his son of rape has fled the country, a dirty cop is now the only eyewitness, and legal fees, private investigator fees, and faith are in short supply. Domingo in another outstanding performance, without the vibrato most actors would have relied on, reminds James that they’ve never had money, but they fed their kids. They will figure this part out, too.
That love sustains throughout the entire cast. During the Q and A after the premiere, Jenkins called If Beale Street Could Talk a film about mothers. The victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) who isn’t lying, but is so tormented and in pain, she is unable to process her next step as a mother. Ms. Rivers (Regina King) is a mother, not just to her two daughters, but is also a surrogate mother to the man who loves her daughter.
King and Rios must be nominated for awards. Rio’s portrayal of a survivor still trying to make sense of her attack is shattering. She is able to exist right on the edge, so close to shattering so authentically it will break hearts. King as a mother running out of options, desperate for results, but always adhering to her duty as a woman is profound.
Teyonah Parris gives one of my favorite performances as Tish’s older sister, Ernestine. There’s a line in If Beale Street Could Talk that shook me to my core. I will never forget this moment. With all the force of love that can only exist between siblings, Parris punched out the words, “Unbow your head sister.” To see it written won’t do it justice. To see it performed will give you chills.
Jenkins directed his entire cast with a light hand. Creating space for them to perform, to find their voice, and to bring the reality of life to the forefront. Newcomer Layne is one of the most exciting people to happen to film in a long time. She is grace and ethereal without being untouchable or unknowable. There is no air of mystery around her. She is the best humanity has to offer. Kind, hardworking, and willing to expose herself emotionally in a way most can’t. Layne guides the story with strength and patience. Know her name.
Typically, men behind bars are not seen crying in films. Over time, they are either worn down to nothing or become ripped and hardened. Baldwin found a way to mix all of these truths and never land on a stereotype. James put breath into that truth. Behind bars, he is a man hungry for freedom and a child afraid of what will happen next. Outside of prison, James exemplifies a first love. As Fonny, James handles Tish with a genial grace. Gently taking her hand, performing to put a smile on her face, patiently waiting for the right words to explain his actions. James understands the preciousness of first love and he magnifies it beautifully.
If Beale Street Could Talk is shot and edited almost like a dream. A stark contrast to how the film is written. Though the film is rooted in truth, that truth is a nightmare. A swirling camera (James Laxton), gorgeous etherial light, haunting darks, and seamless editing (Joi McMillion and Nat Sanders) feel like a dream. Meandering at times, laser-focused at others, the visual exploration of space allows the audience to picture what might have been in a just world. It’s impossible to understate the pure artistry of what Jenkins and his crew have created.
Written during the same six weeks as Moonlight it is possible If Beale Street Could Talk will be the end of Jenkins’ introduction. He now enters the halls of the greats. Moonlight was not a fluke, but the first of many. I cannot wait to see what he has in store next.
Header Image Source: Annapurna Pictures