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NYFF Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ celebrates love as an act of defiance

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight is another narrative of love and humanity. An adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins creates a film that mimics Baldwin’s prose in its imagery and cadence without sacrificing one iota of cinematic meaning. This is literature as cinema, blending mediums to tell a story about black humanity and love as an act of defiance against dehumanization.

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Lane), two young people falling in love in 1970s New York. The film intercuts the development of their relationship from childhood to young adulthood with the aftermath of Fonny’s wrongful arrest on a rape charge. In the midst of attempting to prove Fonny’s innocence, Tish discovers she is pregnant. With the help of her mother (Regina King), father (Coleman Domingo), and sister (Teyonah Paris), Tish fights against the white establishment to free her friend, her lover, and the father of her child.

As with Moonlight, Jenkins’s camera intertwines with his characters as they intertwine with each other, dwelling on the beauty of their bodies, their eyes, and their skin with a delicacy and warmth that is both moving and melancholy. The plot drives Beale Street, the combined investigation of the rape and the depiction of the relationship providing a narrative movement that the character study of Moonlight lacked. The focus on action doesn’t sacrifice character development—each character, from Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), a Holy Roller who appears in only one scene, to the lovers themselves, are treated with a scrutiny that avoids either visual or narrative clichés. Tish’s family is loving, their celebration of her pregnancy a passionate embrace of life, set against the coldness of Fonny’s mother and sisters. But even they are treated with understanding, their pushback against Tish is symptomatic of religious fervor and of both implied and explicit domestic violence.

Central to the film is the danger that black people face in America simply by existing, and the critical power of this narrative isn’t lessened by setting it in the past. One pivotal scene has Fonny and Tish meeting Danny (Brian Tyree Henry), an old friend, on the night Fonny is arrested. As Fonny and Danny put away beer after beer, Danny reveals that he’s recently out of prison following a two year stint for car theft. “I don’t even know how to drive,” Danny says. As the camera sways between the two men, Danny talks about his experiences in prison, never making explicit what happened to him, but exhibiting his trauma with every word he doesn’t say. Danny’s trauma at the hands of the white justice system will be replayed before Fonny’s eyes, when he is wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, a result of the bad action of a white cop. The film never shows Fonny’s arrest, nor what happens to him behind bars—it is all seen through Tish’s eyes, as he appears at first happy and healthy, then bloodied about the face, emaciated, exhausted. The pain he suffers isn’t secondary to the narrative, but the hint of it, rather than an explicit depiction of it, forces the audience to occupy Tish’s position as someone who can only stand by and see the aftermath of a loved one suffering.

Where Moonlight focused on the black masculine experience, If Beale Street Could Talk is a very female-centric film. Kiki Lane and Regina King are the standouts simply because the heaviest demand of screen time is made on them, but every female character is lovingly drawn. This emphasis on the feminine sometimes works against Beale Street, especially as more focus is laid on the crime Fonny was arrested for, and the underlying understanding and experience of violence against women. In one shocking moment, Fonny’s father hits his mother, knocking her to the ground, and the women of the film close ranks, suddenly united in the face of male aggression. But this union is short-lived—masculine violence becomes simply another element in the lives of these women that they learn to put up with.

One of the more questionable elements of Beale Street is the central conceit surrounding Fonny’s arrest and incarceration for sexual assault. It is clear that Fonny didn’t do it – Tish and Danny were both with him the entire night, the crime was committed far away from his home. There is never a question of his guilt – this is the white judicial system railroading a black man into prison for a crime he didn’t commit, with rape standing in for any number of crimes and misdemeanors for which black men are arrested and imprisoned, regardless of guilt. The complexity of the issue of rape specifically, however, is what makes Beale Street even more uncomfortable. The audience, Fonny’s family, girlfriend, friends, and lawyer are all aware of his innocence; the arresting officer is even aware of it. But the matter is complicated by the insistence on the part of victim Victoria (Emily Rios) that Fonny was the man who attacked her. Given the excuses, lies, and manipulations of the truth to excuse sexual violence or disbelieve survivors, there is something profoundly disturbing in seeing a woman tell another woman that she is incorrect about the identity of her rapist “because I’ve known him all his life.” There is far too much of an echo of so many excuses, made by mothers, wives, girlfriends, friends, to explain why, in this case, a victim is wrong. While the film treats the issue with a great deal of sensitivity and does not blame Victoria for Fonny’s treatment at the hands of the white establishment, there are several scenes that needed a more careful development to avoid danger of distracting from, or even of creating a false relationship between one of the film’s main themes – the mistreatment and imprisonment of black men simply for being black – and the issues of rape, false accusation, and the gaslighting of victims.

Where Beale Street shines is in its romantic (but never romanticized) depiction of love, of generosity and trust, of passion and understanding, the throbbing emotional core of life. There is such warmth here, such a love of humanity, such a celebration of love in the midst of hardship, all without asking one or any of the characters to sacrifice themselves in order to help or save anyone else. This is a beautiful film and, despite one or two reservations about its plotting, it demands to be seen.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5