Originally written by American author James Baldwin and adapted into film by director Barry Jenkins, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the strength, triumphs and agony of a young black couple living in 1970s Harlem.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is an honest and raw example of black America’s history of mistreatment by the government institutions in which they are seemingly controlled by and subject to. In harmony with the tragic commentary on black culture that remains prominent in Baldwin’s writings, Jenkins, in a fashion similar to his Academy Award winning film “Moonlight” (2016), drenches the film with radiant and almost hyperreal cinematography that makes “If Beale Street Could Talk” nothing less than a visual masterpiece of black love, strength and pain.
Kiki Layne and Stephan James give a stunning portrayal of 19-year-old Clementine, “Tish” Rivers and 22-year-old artist Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt. The film centers around the relationship between Tish and Fonny, a young couple who share a beautifully depicted and unconditional love for each other. This is accompanied by composer Nicholas Britell’s tragically beautiful score, which coats audiences in a surreal harmony of strings and the seemingly divine arpeggios of a faint trumpet.
Early on in the film, Tish discovers she is pregnant with Fonny’s baby and is met with a somewhat unexpected and beautiful support for her unborn child by her family, portrayed by the outstanding Regina King, Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris. However, Fonny and Tish’s dream of creating a life and family together are quickly derailed when Fonny is imprisoned after being wrongly accused of raping a young woman.
Jenkins tells this tragic story through a series of vignettes, which speckle the beauty and hope of Fonny and Tish’s relationship in its early stages between the more harrowing scenes of Fonny behind bars.
One of the most brutal scenes in “If Beale Street Could Talk” shows a late-night dinner conversation between Fonny and family friend Daniel Carty, portrayed by actor Brian Tyree Henry. Daniel, recently released from a two-year prison sentence, gives an unforgiving example of the exhaustion and abuse of black men, who are constantly mistreated by white institutions. “When you’re in there,” Daniel says, looking directly into the eyes of the viewer, “they can do with you whatever they want. Yeah, I mean, whatever they want.” Henry delivers these lines, straight from Baldwin’s original text, with such raw fear and vulnerability that the audience can feel the terror and exhaustion that Daniel and many other black men try so desperately to cope with.
Jenkins hits American audiences with a soft punch, but leaves a lasting bruise in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” This film leaves viewers infuriated by the systems which continually abuse and mistreat people of color in America. Even more harrowing is the fact that nearly fifty years after its publication, “If Beale Street Could Talk” remains an accurate representation of the justice system’s relationship with black men, as black men remain the largest demographic to be falsely accused and incarcerated.
Despite the systemic suffering of people such as Fonny, Jenkins weaves a touching and heart-wrenching illustration of love in a time of hate, perhaps making “If Beale Street Could Talk” one of the most moving films of 2018.