Monday 7 January 2019

Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

A drama and romance about love and hope thriving despite systemic injustice, If Beale Street Could Talk is a tender story, elegantly presented.

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo Hunt, known to his friends as Fonny (Stephan James), are young lovers from lower middle class black families in New York City. Fonny is imprisoned and awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit, and Tish announces to her family she is pregnant. Her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) are supportive, but Fonny's religious zealot of a mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is less impressed.

Tish and Sharon try to scrape together payment for a lawyer to defend Fonny. Throughout the pregnancy Tish regularly visits Fonny at his detention centre, while in flashback the story of their friendship, courtship and love is revealed. Fonny was trying to launch a career as a sculptor when he was arrested, while as a couple, Tish and Fonny were routinely rejected while looking for an apartment. Back in the present, Sharon tracks down Fonny's accuser, but saving a black man from an overburdened justice system will not be easy.

Following up from the critical success of Moonlight, director and writer Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin's 1974 novel and teases out the story's enduring immediacy. Beale Street is a metaphorical reference to the universal black experience in America, and the film elaborates on themes of family, persistence, imperfection and mostly love in a delicate and understated package.

If Beale Street Could Talk is devoid of outward signs of outrage, recriminations or calls for retribution. Instead, Jenkins walks softly and wields a lyrical camera. In the same city where no one will accept Fonny as a tenant and the policing and court systems are a slanting platform towards prison for young black men, a love flourishes between two childhood friends, a baby is conceived, a family is supportive, and hope for some version of a better tomorrow survives against all logic.

At close to two hours, the small story does stretch, and a few scenes do linger longer than needed. An interlude featuring Danny (Brian Tyree Henry), a friend of Fonny's who has already experienced incarceration, slows to a long crawl. A well-meaning white lawyer fades out of the story altogether. And the courtship between the young lovers includes a few too many languid moments.

Frequent punchier scenes elevate the narrative. An early meeting between the families of Tish and Fonny is an exquisite domestic wreck, and a confirmation of how the same event can both unify and divide within the black community. Later the young couple do find a sympathetic landlord (Dave Franco) offering grim premises but thriving on imagination.

Stephan James and newcomer KiKi Layne deliver charming performances, portraying Fonny and Tish with pragmatism and innocence. Regina King is provided several opportunities to shine, and grasps them with an open heart.

If Beale Street Could Talk unfurls its quiet tale with authoritative beauty.

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