If Beale Stret Could Talk Says Plenty

If Beale Street Could Talk (2019)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Annapurna Pictures, 119 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)

There are two things to know about this film off the bat. First, it’s being billed as a timeless love story. That’s only sort of true. It’s faithfully based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, and Baldwin was not the sort to deliver fluff. Nor is Barry Jenkins, the director who gave us the magnificent and Academy Award-wining film Moonlight (2016). Second, the film is actually set in Harlem, not Memphis. Baldwin’s title is an oblique reference to a W. C. Handy blues composition from 1916. If you know anything about the blues, it’s that tragedy and circumstance threaten everything in their path.

We do get a love story, one between Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers  (Kiki Layne). They have known each other since they were infants and suddenly come to grips with that giddy moment in which familiarity blossoms into something much deeper. James and Layne are adorable as a couple. In fact, Jenkins’ treatment of those moments is one of the better treatments of those magic moments when love and passion shut out the rest of the world and give way to a universe of two. The first part of the film plays like romance pictures such as Say Anything, Splendor in the Grass, When Harry Met Sally, or The Way We Were.

Alas, a universe of two faced long odds for a black couple in the early 1970s. Fonny is a struggling sculptor and Tish a student. Their love is strong–the sort that leads to spontaneous yelps of joy–but where will such a couple live if they wish more than basement hovel? How will they negotiate a world in which a white man feels it’s his right to proposition a black woman whenever he feels a desire for­–as the expression of the time put it–a bit of the strange? What does one do about racist cops such as Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) who are just waiting for an excuse to administer a beating (or worse)? Indeed, how do they overcome internal obstacles such as Fonny’s evangelical mother (Aunjanue Ellis), or pay for a lawyer if you need an advocate for a crime you did not commit? The last of these is critical when Fonny is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.

If Beale Street Could Talk has already won Golden Globe honors for Best Motion Picture Drama and it is certain to garner Academy Award nominations. Is it worthy? Yes, but perhaps not in categories one might expect. As noted, James and Layne make a cute, cuddly couple, but their performances don’t stretch either actor. They mostly do as their roles demand and are intoxicated with each other. James also does a wonderful job of showing how a man can be pushed to his limits. His tongue bends to his cheek in moments where we see him struggle to contain his rage.

In an unusual twist, Jenkins gives the juicier parts to actors in supporting roles. You’ll probably want to strangle the sanctimonious Ellis when she’s at her righteous worst, just as you’ll thrill to the put-downs from Tish’s sassy sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). If I’m handing out the Oscar hardware, though, it goes to Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers. Hers is a performance that walks a tightrope between fierce determination and world-weary resignation. Also affecting is Colman Domingo as Tish’s father, Joseph. He is man trying to do right by his daughters no matter the risk, and he knows to back off when his wife arches her eyebrow or delivers a sharp rebuke. His laugh is infectious, and he’s streetwise in ways Fonny is not. I would imagine both Rivers and Domingo will get supporting actor nods, and I’d give another to composer Nicholas Britell for a score that enhances drama when needed, but gets out of the way when the screen action requires no help.

James Baldwin died in 1987, but had long before grown suspicious of whether black folks could trust whites. Beale Street isn’t cynical about that possibility, but it is leery of it. Credit goes to Jenkins for letting such questions linger rather than launching into a sermon. There is Officer Bell looming over matters, but also moments of hope such as Fonny’s encounters with a friendly waiter, Petrocito (Diego Luna) that seems like a genuine friendship. We also meet Levy (Dave Franco), a Jewish landlord drawn to people in love no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion. Is cross-racial trust real or na├»ve?

Is is Beale Street a lock for a Best Picture Oscar? It certainly wouldn’t grieve me if it won, but it would not get my vote. It’s a very good film, but not a masterpiece like Moonlight. It’s very easy to draw parallels between this film, the morning headlines, and Black Lives Matter. If we literally take race out of the (motion) picture, however, Beale Street is a romantic drama cut from the same cloth as lots of tales in which some terrible injustice separates young lovers. You know­, like Romeo and Juliet. I don’t mean to sound the slightest bit cynical; I liked this film very much and couldn’t possibly admire James Baldwin or Barry Jenkins more than I already do. That said, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman is among the films that are more Oscar worthy for the big awards. But by all means see If Beale Street Could Talk. Its tragic core reminds us of how far we’ve come and how much road remains before our feet.

Rob Weir

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