If Beale Street Could Talk
Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Teyonah Parris
2018 was truly a year for Black cinema. Between Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, Widows, and to lesser but still noteworthy (and questionable) extent, Green Book, you would be hard-pressed to claim the year didn’t offer arguably the best class of mainstream works from ethnic filmmakers in recent memory – and that’s without mentioning other exquisite films like Roma and Crazy Rich Asians. Although, clearly missing from this list of yesteryear’s finest is Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016), but not out of spit. Distribution minutiae standing, If Beale Street Can Talk was technically released in 2018, but didn’t receive a proper wide release until the other side of the new year. So when I declared my best films of 2018, I had no choice but to omit it. Let this late review of Beale Street be an inherent indication of just how highly I think of this deceivingly monumental film.
If Beale Street Could Talk adapts James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, telling the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) and their love in the face of a reality that actively seeks to deprive them of a dignified existence. Namely, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and is arbitrarily jailed with little to no recourse. The film goes to length to spell out the logistical unlikelihood of his guilt, but it doesn’t really matter. Fonny is Black man in America, the implications of which help shape the narrative beats in the film. The same is true for Tish as a Black woman in America. Just as Fonny is indefinitely sent to jail, Tish learns she’s with his child and reaches out to both their families for support for what will undoubtedly be a futile slog towards an unjust conclusion, but inspired by Tish and Sonny’s pure and innocent love, they soldier on. And so, the central tragedy in Beale Street doesn’t stem from infidelity or death or our lovers’ falling out, but from the scarier truth of the African American condition, as vast a definition as that is.
Barry Jenkins again demonstrates a mastery over emotional verisimilitude throughout the film’s series of connected vignettes and flashbacks that I felt was even more accessibly resonant than in his Oscar winning film. Every facet of the production from the delectable cinematography to the gorgeous aesthetic and composer Nicholas Britell’s beautifully harmonic score aggregate a well-crafted capsule poignant in it’s ability to capture the essence of what it means to be human with no real control of your life’s potential within the arbitrary social state; the best instance of which occurs in one of my favorite sequences in the film involving Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta, Widows) and his unsettlingly neurotic monologue to Fonny and Tish about his experience in prison.
Tish and Fonny are the heart and center of Beale Street, so it’s imperative KiKi Layne and Stephan James contrive a palpable chemistry that can double as the thematic vehicle for the film, which they accomplish incredibly well – I fully expect we’ll be seeing more of them on the big screen in coming years. It’s what gives their tragedy emotional stake, as well as the film’s final, optimistic outlook; that is the consolatory triumph of love, a triumph that despite the helpless subjugation via shamelessly racist institutional handicaps (whether that’s labor or housing prospects, or safety) and random criminalization, manages to cut through the suffering.
By the end of 2018, I declared The Favourite best film of the year. I’m not sure if I prefer Beale Street over Lanthimos’ film, but I can say that they’re at least tied for the distinction in my mind, which brings me to the issue of the 2019 Academy Awards. Ever since I discovered my passion for movies as a kid, I always felt I could respect the Academy and its judgement of at least which films be nominated for the big awards, namely Best Picture. Sure, every year there’s one or two films I would have liked to see recognized, but generally I can live with the roster they put out. The same can not be said this year. It’s inexcusable that a film like Beale Street is absent from the Best Picture nominees the same year a objectively lesser film like Bohemian Rhapsody is not only nominated but somehow a contender to win. As subjective as film is, you can’t deny the discrepancy in artistic caliber between the two. It’s almost fitting that a film about the brutal truths of systemic prejudice is shunned by a legacy institution clearly ignorant of the true nature of the representation issues raised against it. Let If Beale Street Could Talk be a reminder that art and the necessity of expression cannot be determined by any central authority, whether that authority is an institution or an autonomous collective.