The more I watch actors at work, the less I believe that acting is all about how well you deliver a line, and the more I appreciate the ability to convey exactly what your character’s thinking and feeling even when you don’t have any dialogue at all. It’s a gift that draws the viewer’s eye to someone in a small role who is destined for far greater things.
That being said, a film that is grounded in a fine work of literature and channels its verbal delights undiminished by the change in media is still something to be treasured. If Beale Street Could Talk gives us the best of both approaches. Conceived before Moonlight propelled him into the spotlight, it was clearly a labor of love for director Barry Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay himself. And love is what it’s all about: an appropriate tribute to novelist/essayist/social reformer James Baldwin, who argued consistently throughout his career that love, including love of the Other, was the only force with any hope of moving America beyond its persistent racism.
Indeed, the movie’s central theme is expressed in a line of sage and compassionate advice to the narrator, Tish (KiKi Layne), from her mother Sharon (Regina King): “If you trusted love this far, trust it all the way.” Romantic love, love of family, love of community are what enable black Americans in 1970s Harlem to survive the injustice that grinds them down. The author’s faith in his message, and Jenkins’ skill in bringing it to the screen, keep a story that is downbeat in its particulars upbeat in its ultimate tone.
If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of Tish and Fonny (Stephan James), who are the best kind of young lovers: inseparable friends from early childhood, loyal soulmates who take a long time to figure out that they’re also physically and romantically attracted to each other. It’s clear that their impending marriage – postponed by the difficulty of finding a landlord who will rent an apartment to a black couple – is destined to last. But before they can get to that point, Fonny is picked up on the street in the West Village by a nasty white cop who was frustrated in an earlier attempt to arrest him for roughing up a man who was sexually harassing Tish. Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) puts Fonny in a lineup where he’s misidentified as the perpetrator of a vicious rape that happened on the Lower East Side. Timingwise, Fonny was too far away for this charge to make any sense, but his alibi is deemed unreliable and he’s jailed.
Meanwhile, Tish has just discovered that she is pregnant. Her two-stage process of revealing this news is our window into Baldwin’s nuanced depiction of the many varieties of black American family life. Tish’s own family is surprised, having known Fonny as her best friend for many years, but supportive. King is every bit as wonderful as advertised as family bulwark Sharon; Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris have believable chemistry as dad Joseph – a wily and determined provider – and sister Ernestine, whose political radicalization supplies a handy connection to a hungry young white lawyer (Finn Wittrock).
Fonny’s family is a much tougher nut to crack. Dad Frank (Michael Beach) is old mates with Joseph, and persuadable; but his wife, the formidable Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), and daughters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) are religious zealots who don’t much approve of Tish. Both of these “big reveal” scenes are central to the story and exquisitely choreographed, although Ellis’ over-the-top portrayal of the judgmental church lady (a stock character in Baldwin’s writing, based on his brief experience as a minister-in-training) mostly distracts from the great work that the other actors are doing here. The take-no-prisoners Ernestine making short work of Fonny’s stuck-up sisters is a joy to watch, in particular.
Although Tish is, technically speaking, an unwed mother, this story is worlds away from familiar negative stereotypes about welfare babies and deadbeat dads. (There’s some meaty stuff here about committed black fatherhood, especially when Joseph chivvies Frank into doing whatever it takes to rescue Fonny.) We watch the young couple’s story unfold in two parallel timelines, one tracing their past relationship and the other punctuated by Tish’s visits to her beloved in jail, with a pane of safety glass separating them. We never see what exactly happens to Fonny there – though we see the results, including one in which his face is healing from a severe beating. A flashback to a visit from a friend (Brian Tyree Henry), recently released from a prison term for a crime he also didn’t commit, again hints at the horrors of time behind bars for black men. What isn’t shown, or said explicitly, serves well enough to unsettle us, and to link this 1970s story most firmly with what is still happening to young black men in the America of 2019. Its timeliness is terrible in every sense.
What Tish has – a wellspring of determination like her mother’s, even when facing daily setbacks and humiliations; a family willing to make sacrifices to help her and Fonny; the prospect of raising her own child long enough to bond with his father – is powerful enough to keep her eyes on the prize, though. That’s what steers this film away from going off the rails into rage and despair. She’s a remarkable young woman, and KiKi Layne is a remarkable young actress with a bright future ahead of her. Stephan James makes her a worthy match.
If Beale Street Could Talk is beautiful to look at and to listen to, its ominous discordant chords darkening its jazzy score, its sensitive cinematography capturing Manhattan’s baking summer sidewalks and chill, drizzly late-autumn nights. Audiences who are used to the momentum of action movies may find themselves balking at its slow, deliberate pacing. But this is the sort of romance that needs time to breathe, to show people simply looking deeply at one another, and Jenkins gives it that luxury. The result is a film that will stay in your thoughts and keep on growing long after you leave the cinema.