‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ manages to be better than ‘Moonlight’

If I had a superpower that could eradicate something completely from our world’s history, I know where I would use it in full: I’d take away racism. 

If there is one thing that has poisoned the well endlessly to a degree that healing is almost impossible, it’s the fact that people judge others and their actions by the color of their skin and not the ambitions of their heart still to this day. This was a problem over a hundred years ago, and still is a lingering disease today, one that just won’t go away. It’s also a powerful platform for filmmakers to preach to us about the callous narrow-minded actions of our species. 

Writer/Director Barry Jenkins, who won an Oscar for 2016’s innovative Moonlight, takes us back into the early 1970’s in his latest feature, If Beale Street Could Talk. An adaptation of James Baldwin’s groundbreaking novel, Jenkins informs us how little times have changed, but provides us with a defining example of our inability to accept others just because they don’t look exactly like us. In other words, he places a mirror in front of us, and asks us to take a look at what went wrong. One of the most powerful films of 2018 is the result. 

The tale is simple yet potent. Tish (KiKI Layne) and Alonzo (Stephen James), aka “Fonny”, are in love. I mean, truly and madly in love. When the Ancient Greeks were drafting up the word and all the emotion it could encompass, Tish and Fonny were their ideal candidates. Tish is the younger sister to Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), and daughter to Sharon (Regina King, simply tremendous here) and Joseph (Colman Domingo). She works hard at her job as a perfume saleswoman, but doesn’t really have a career goal in mind. Her goal in life is to love Fonny, who works as a sculptor among other jobs, as much as possible. As Tish puts it, Fonny would work as a short-order cook to make sure he could eat, but that wasn’t his job. He had other plans. Romance sat at the top of both of their lists of ambitions. 

They want to build a life together, but when Fonny is the victim of racial profiling and put in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, their lives are shattered. Jenkins’ film tracks the course of their relationship, which started as kids, to their courtship, and into their current dilemma-but he doesn’t tell the story in a linear fashion. Abiding by Baldwin’s poetic yet complex sculpting of the story, we go back and forth in Tish and Fonny’s story, collecting information about their lives while falling in love with them. Fonny’s unjust arrest centers around the color of his skin, and while Jenkins never lets us forget where the dark heart of this movie exists, he doesn’t have to beat us over the head with it at every juncture. We know Fonny didn’t do it, but we also know why he’s in jail unfortunately. The spice of the plot commences when Tish finds out she is pregnant, which heightens the need to get Fonny out of jail. 

Here’s what I took away from this film: it’s a twist on the sad but true tale of Romeo and Juliet. Take that story of two people completely and utterly in love with each other, lace it with unruly hate and racism oppressing their lives, and you have this tale. In a perfect world, Tish and Fonny would be together, live their lives, love each other, respect others, but that’s not possible in our world. It wasn’t possible back in 1972. If you knew how many African Americans were thrown into jail for a crime they didn’t commit, you’d lose count in seconds. The power in this story comes from the filmmaker knowing how to make you feel everything seen on the screen. 

Jenkins is a masterful filmmaker, and he has an orchestra of mad hat genius’ working under him here. The director shapes the Memphis, Tennessee town with cinematographer James Laxton as a wild concourse of opportunity, lust, and misfortune. Sitting in your seat, you’ll move your feet quietly to Nicholas Britell’s evocative score, which hits all the right notes. Mark Friedberg makes each setting, especially Tish and Fonny’s rundown house, a place of warm rapture by getting the little things potently correct. Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders make sure the movie moves at a brisk yet assured pace, with the nearly two hour running time putting your wrist watch and cell phone in a daycare for the entire film. I wanted to go to these streets and put my head on the ground to listen. Filmmakers have to create a world that the viewer should want to step into. 

The cast is uniformly excellent, with a few standouts. Everybody with a speaking part in this film hits hard. James is currently the subject of Julia Roberts’ attention on the Amazon series, Homecoming, but he cuts a sharp edge here as the deliberate and passionate Fonny. There are multiple scenes with Tish and Fonny divided by a piece of glass in prison, and James soars during these scenes with the minimalist facial expressions and line readings. Layne crafts Tish with an endearing heart that has some rugged steel to its makeup, an attribute that becomes more evident as the film bobs and weaves through time. You believe these two have spent their entire life together thanks to James and Layne.

If Regina King can be in every other movie, the ones that Octavia Spencer isn’t in these days at least, that would be great. King gave an Emmy-winning performance in Netflix’s Seven Seconds as a desperate mother who has been struck by racial injustice, and she assembles Sharon here with similar parts. She’s a tour-de-force wherever she goes, and has dug her feet into the ground in recent years. I didn’t know who Domingo was before the film started, but I want to know more now. From the minute we meet Joseph, we know he will do anything for his daughter. Domingo endears that notion to the screen. Michael Beach, a seasoned actor, has a great part here as Fonny’s dad, who is equally devoted to saving his son’s life. 

Parris cuts the screen with a knife as Tish’s selfless sister, making her presence known in a scene early on with Fonny’s scornful mother (Aunjuane Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorn). You’ll know it when you see it, because it’s both terrifying and funny. Brian Tyree Henry, who sparked a handful of scenes in Steve McQueen’s Widows this month, has one powerful scene that works as a label for the entire film. Diego Luna, who deftly plays a loyal friend to Fonny, is good, but I must tip my cap to Dave Franco, who gets one scene (like Henry) and nails it. 

Once again, if an actor spoke, they set the screen on fire here. This film should be up for Best Ensemble Cast, because everyone fells like they’ve lived in their roles for years. It’s natural instead of forced. 

If Beale Street Could Talk is a painfully beautiful film. It has an intent that hurts you in a useful way. You’ll leave in tears, but you will know where they came from and the path they took from your heart to the face. There are scenes in this film that made me laugh followed by ones that made me sad. Throughout it all, Jenkins’ film is one of the more thought-provoking films of the year, because it handles a subject matter with care yet isn’t afraid to show the ferocity of its nature. As he did in Moonlight, he takes an uncomfortable topic and dissects it with artful integrity. 

Do something for me. Close your eyes and imagine a world without racism. In other words, a world without hate. Let it linger for a bit, and don’t open your eyes too soon. Just think about it. The effect it could have and the path charted by that change. Where would we be as a species if that was deleted? I left If Beale Could Street Could Talk dying to acquire that sole superpower. Eliminate a disease that doesn’t fester in our bodies, but from the Earth we were born onto. 

I went home and hugged my wife and son. After watching Barry Jenkins’ new film, I needed to. It will make you believe in love and all the pain and joy it can produce. The Ancient Greeks should have warned us. 

Go see If Beale Street Could Talk. Make the time. It will be well worth it. 2018 has been the year of the sad but true story on screen; a trip that has informed and enlightened. They never said movie watching would be easy. 

That’s all I have to say. 

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