2019 is shaping up to be the year for poignant pieces in film. From the Director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk is a captivating story of love, heartache and enduring hope in the face of relentless adversity. Set in Harlem, in the 1970s, the film traces the love story of two young African Americans, Tish Rivers and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt, falling in love; allowing you to share in their intimacy as their relationship blooms from a lifelong friendship, and ache with them as their future is torn apart by a false accusation and a corrupt and racist justice system.
Adapted to screen from James Baldwins novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk offers gut-wrenching commentary on systemic racism, as you reminisce with and experience their present story through Tish’s eyes. Told through flashbacks from their childhood and their early relationship, to the present day, there is an incredible sense of intimacy in this story, made deeper by the characters often look directly at the audience during moments of important dialogue, allowing you to see the purity and softness of love shared between them along with the anger and sense of injustice as they try, with the help of their families and lawyer, to put all of their faith in love.
Remarkable performances from both of the film’s lead actors, Kiki Layne (screen new comer) and Stephan James, along with strong supporting roles played by the likes of Regina King, make it impossible to not stay rooting for a happy ending from start to finish for this couple and their loved ones, despite their inability to escape an oppressive system built on hatred and white privilege.
For some audiences, the slow pace at which the story unfurls may be a point of frustration, if you are unfamiliar with Jenkins directorial style, it may seem contrived and over worked in some areas, and if you fail to pay attention, the continual jumping between the past and the present in Tish and Fonny’s love story, often out of sequence entirely, may leave you unsure of where you are. But what Jenkins has done with If Beale Street Could Talk is allow space for the depth and historical weight of this film to be absorbed by the audience as you are hit with wave after wave of anger and anguish felt by Tish, Fonny and their loved ones.
Whilst being transported to another era so eloquently by the set design team and wardrobe department, supported by Tish’s narration, as well as the use of actual photographs of the racism and oppression experienced by African Americans in the 1970s, as a viewer you can’t help but begin to feel uncomfortable when it dawns on you that whilst this is set almost 50 years ago, it is still a very harsh reality faced by many in the present day.
Oscar nominated for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score), Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role – Regina King, and Best Adapted Screenplay – Barry Jenkins, there is a reason that critics have raved about this film.
There is something to be said for a film that shows restraint and executes subtlety almost flawlessly, that can move its audience just as much, if not a little bit more, in the moments absent of dialogue than the ones with it. Jenkins truly has done it again with If Beale Street Could Talk; his exceptional directorial style alongside the captivating cinematography of James Laxton, and the moving original score by Nicholas Britell does justice to Baldwin’s novel, and unfortunately, in the absence of justice for Tish and Fonny, there isn’t much more we can ask for.
As it would turn out, Beale Street could talk, and it certainly had a lot to say.
Opening in cinemas February 14th.
Reviewed by Sarah Burley