Movie Review – If Beale Street Could Talk
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This year has been a great year for black cinema, meaning cinema about African-American people, starring African-American people or directed by African-American people. Leading the charge is Black Panther, which represents the pinnacle of black excellence in film right now. There were also 20 other films that came out in wide release that also fit the bill for black cinema. However, what’s lacking in all the black cinema this year and in the past decade are black romances. In the 1990’s, there were a ton of black romances or black romantic comedies that were being produced. One of the signature films from the 90’s was Love Jones (1997). There were several black romances that came out around then, but, for some reason, black romances slowed down after the year 2000, practically coming to a screeching halt.
When I say black romances, I mean films about two black people falling in love or the love between black people being what’s on the line or the main thrust of the narrative. Every now and then, there was something that got released like Jumping the Broom (2011), Think Like a Man (2012) or Beyond the Lights (2014). Tyler Perry has even tried in the interim to fill the void, but even he can’t keep up with the bombardment of romances or rom-coms about white people. The same lacking could also be said about romance films involving other minorities like Latinos, Native Americans or Asians, which is why Crazy Rich Asians was such a hit in part due to there being a hunger in the audience.
Within the independent film space, this problem doesn’t really exist, but unless you live in a big city where there’s an arthouse theater, you’re out of luck. Also, good luck digging through digital platforms! Barry Jenkins proved this ten years ago in his directorial feature debut Medicine for Melancholy (2009). Unfortunately, given the track record, arthouse theaters might be where black romances are resigned. If this film gets a lot of love at the Oscars, then it could spread, but not every film can get that kind of push. Black romances can of course be sneaked into wider releases like Superfly or Creed II, but it has to be surrounded by action or violence of some sort.
This film, which Jenkins adapted from the novel by James Baldwin, is actually not that far off from that vein. The romance between two black people isn’t the only thing occurring in this film. This film is also about the relationship of the black community with the criminal justice system. In that, it’s not that far off from films like The Hate U Give, BlacKkKlansman or even Green Book to some extent. Those films commented on the issue that is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. They commented on the often state-sanctioned violence by police against African-Americans.
Kiki Layne stars as Tish Rivers, a 19-year-old girl in Harlem, New York, presumably living in the same time period as when the book was released, which was 1974. She narrates the story. Her words end up being lines or passages lifted from Baldwin’s novel. The film opens with Tish telling her boyfriend Fonny, played by Stephan James (Homecoming and Race), that she’s pregnant. Fonny is a 22-year-old sculptor who lives in Harlem and does odd jobs to get by. Both Kiki and Fonny are excited about the upcoming baby. There’s only one problem. Fonny is currently in jail.
From that point, the film follows two parallel timelines. The first timeline follows Kiki as she and her family do what they can to try to get Fonny out of jail, as his arrest was fairly recent and his case is still being decided if it will go to trial or not. The second timeline goes back to when Kiki and Fonny first met as children and tracks the two of them falling in love and preparing to get married, as well as planning what the rest of their lives are going to be.
The first timeline is powerful and thrilling. It’s also heartbreaking in a way that feels like a realization of some of the nightmare scenarios in Ava DuVernay’s 13th. At the same time, it would make a perfect companion piece to DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere (2012). It’s able to really convey the fears that young black men have, the frustrations they face and the walls that they are slammed against. It not only conveys those fears from the perspective of a young black man, especially one that’s about to become a father, but it also conveys those fears from the perspective of older black men who are already fathers looking at their children.
Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead and Passing Strange) plays Joseph Rivers, Tish’s father. Michael Beach (Aquaman and Patriots Day) plays Frank Hunt, Fonny’s father. Both of them get the opportunity to express the fears and frustrations but also the conviction of what a father must or will do to be there for their sons.
It’s a similar kind of dynamic for the mothers. Aunjanue Ellis (Quantico and The Birth of a Nation) plays Mrs. Hunt, the mother to Fonny. She’s a very conservative, religious woman who doesn’t approve of the relationship between her son and Tish. She bumps heads with Sharon Rivers, played by Regina King (Seven Seconds and American Crime). Sharon is the mother to Tish, but she’s more a mother to Fonny than Mrs. Hunt is. She literally goes above and beyond to fight for Fonny’s freedom.
Some might find Sharon’s fight to be inappropriate in light of the Me Too movement. Fonny is in jail because he’s been accused of rape. Since the Me Too movement started in the fall of 2017, the culture has changed so that men accused of rape or sexual misconduct don’t get a pass, regardless of who they are. In addition to Ellis, Domingo was also in the film The Birth of a Nation (2016), which was directed by Nate Parker, a black man who was accused of rape when he was in college. The news of that accusation and trial resurfaced in early 2016, which detracted from that film’s release and hurt Parker’s career.
Back when Parker’s rape allegations made the news, many were divided about whether the allegations were true or not or regardless if they should continue to haunt him. The circumstances were very complicated. In the discussions though, we heard about the history of black men who have been falsely accused of rape. We’ve even seen this depicted in films both before and after the Parker situation, as in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Marshall (2017). When it comes to black men falsely accused of crimes, they run the gamut, up to and even including murder, which we’ve seen in films like The Hurricane (1999) and Crown Heights (2017).
This film wants to operate in the same space and mindset. However, Jenkins never depicts the rape or makes any kind of definitive statement about Fonny’s guilt or innocence. Yet, given that the film is mostly about Tish’s love for Fonny and her unwavering belief in him, it could be argued that that is Jenkins’ definitive statement. Yet, even Bill Cosby has his defenders. Nevertheless, the racism that is wrestled in the margins and in character’s faces is supposed to be the overriding factor here. There is even a section that depicts the racism that occurs at a perfume counter, which is a type of racism involving hands that I’ve never seen before.
The second timeline is sheer beauty and tenderness. Jenkins spends the majority of that timeline depicting the love between two gorgeous black people. The close-ups and various other shots of Layne and James are sumptuous and sexy. He certainly lights and frames their bodies in lovely and lustful ways, but always respectfully. What’s also incredible is the way he gives each of his actors, even the ones with smaller roles breath to inhabit and flesh out each of these people. Every actor shines, including Teyonah Parris as Ernestine, the sister to Tish, Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel, the friend to Fonny, Finn Wittrock as Hayward, the lawyer for Fonny, Dave Franco as Levy, the landlord to the couple and Emily Rios as Victoria, the rape victim.
Through his camera and through the performances he crafts, Jenkins culminates or climaxes the film with the birth of Tish’s baby, and it’s a perfect encapsulation because the film as a whole gives birth and gives life to the people here but also to a black community troubled and also triumphant. Like with his previous feature, Moonlight (2016), it does ultimately end on a bittersweet moment. Some might argue that it’s alternately a tragic ending. It’s warmly realistic, as warmly realistic as Baldwin’s initial idea of “love through glass.” I agree with President Barack Obama. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Rated R for language and some sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.
In Select Cities, including Salisbury and Dover.