IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins, based on the eponymous novel by James Baldwin.
Runtime: 119 mins.
Australian release date: 14 February 2019
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 24 January 2019.
“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” - James Baldwin.
It is not too long ago that Barry Jenkin’s film Moonlight almost missed out on its well-deserved Best Motion Picture accolade at the Academy Awards ceremony, after the wrong nomination was read out. His next feature, If Beale Street Could Talk, based on James Baldwin’s eponymous 1974 novel, is an equally impressive work. Set in the Bronx in the early 1970s, it tells the story of a young African American couple caught up in the judicial system when the man is wrongly accused of rape by a vengeful, racist white cop. As shown in Jenkin’s earlier Oscar-winning film, the director clearly knows how growing up black in the white-man’s world is not just an issue from the past but an on-going problem, although one that at least is getting more frequent exposure in light of the Black Lives Matter movement in films like Green Book and The Hate U Give.
Nineteen-year-old Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (KiKi Layne) and her 22-year-old sweetheart Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) grew up as close friends but, as they matured, their friendship blossomed into romantic love. Together, they look for an apartment, not easy at a time when most owners refuse to rent to black couples. A decent Jewish landlord, Levy (Dave Franco), offers them a lease and all augers well for the young couple until the day Tish is accosted by a man in a convenience store and Fonny comes to her aid. When Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) arrives on the scene he tries to arrest Fonny rather than the offender but is forced to back-down by the shop-keeper, who vouches for Fonny’s innocence. Humiliated, Bell gets his revenge at a later point when he claims that the young man was seen running from a rape scene. Arrested, Fonny is refused bail and thrown in gaol. Soon, Tish finds out she is pregnant and the Rivers family set up a meeting with the Hunts to break the news. In a confronting scene, the God-fearing Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis) is particularly venomous, abetted by her equally disdainful daughters Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne). They are unceremoniously sent packing after a scathing putdown by Sharon Rivers (the fabulous Regina King) and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). The only sense of hope and reconciliation comes through the love and respect shown by the young couple’s fathers, Joseph Rivers (Colman Domingo) and Frank Hunt (Michael Beach). Proudly, Joe tells Tish to “Unbow your head, girl.” With Fonny in prison, Tish and her family fight for his release, up against a legal system that refuses to accept an African American’s word against that of a white policeman. As one of the black characters says to another in the film, “This country do not like n***ers, man!”
If Beale Street Could Talk is a compelling love story that is beautifully executed on many levels. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent and the young lovers are eminently watchable. Newcomer KiKi Layne, in particular, is someone to look out for. She is superb. Regina King is nominated for an Academy Award - for Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Oscars (having already picked up the Golden Globe in this category) - as is Barry Jenkins (for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Nicholas Britell (for Best Achievement in Music). Of the latter nomination, the soundtrack is certainly glorious: Britell’s beautiful score is almost heavenly in places and it’s augmented by well-chosen pieces from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and more. It’s Britell’s second Oscar nomination, the first being for Moonlight, and it could be his moment in the sun. In a year where once again the competition is high, this compelling story of black disenfranchisement warrants the recognition it is getting. Let’s hope there are no mistakes this time around.