TIFF18 REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk [2018]

Rating: 10 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 117 minutes
    Release Date: November 30th, 2018 (USA)
    Studio: Annapurna Pictures / Stage 6 Films
    Director(s): Barry Jenkins
    Writer(s): Barry Jenkins / James Baldwin (novel)

Flesh of each other’s flesh.

Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) puts out his arms for a hug upon seeing an old friend in Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) after too much time and too many men their age have passed. Smiles and laughter enter the scene before they are soon replaced by beers and reminiscing. And then comes the hard truth of absence—the explanation of his disappearance. Daniel had been in jail two years for a crime he didn’t commit and Fonny feels for his plight. Despite anything he could possibly say in response being unable to approach understanding, the sentiments are still appreciated. So Daniel stops his friend, thanks him for those thoughts, and throws down the weight of his experience with: “You don’t know.” Because Fonny doesn’t. He will. Just not yet.

Those words can’t help sticking in my mind, their succinctness and profundity a perfect overarching three-word staccato description of the whole of Barry JenkinsIf Beale Street Could Talk. Why? Because I don’t know either. I don’t know what it’s like to be in jail or what it’s like to be refused humanity or freedom—not on this level. James Baldwin might have written his novel with the Black community in mind to approach a reality they’re damned to face along with the ability to somehow endure it and find love, but it’s also here for the rest of us to recognize our privilege. Art like his and Jenkins’ provides truth to remind us of the sacrifice and heroism through survival that some of us might never know.

The power in this is unquantifiable and, much like with Moonlight, Jenkins seeks to express as much through a poetic construction of resonant images, sounds, and experiences. He brings us into this world of aching love and romance tinged but never tainted by the horrors of what looms large above every action. We see the courage of parents willing to plead and steal to literally save their children. While we think about family struggling to give us a better life than they had, Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Sharon Rivers (Regina King) are fighting to keep theirs breathing. Money becomes secondary. Impossible becomes a word erased from their vocabulary. And whether or not their actions succeed, the attempt itself can’t be diminished. No price can be placed on that.

What’s more? God has nothing to do with it. God won’t be reaching down to correct injustices He’s already let fester and grow. The faith in play is in each other instead because Fonny and Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) are worthy of it. Best friends since childhood, their natural attraction and romance are shown via quietly delicate memories. They’ve proven for two decades what they mean to each other and the prospect of a baby to cement that union is never in question. So when his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) spews vitriol in God’s name that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, the response shows what’s at stake. Complacency is inexcusable when equality and true independence are in peril. Prayer is meaningless without execution—especially in the home.

So Jenkins shows the difficulty having this child presents in the now against the abundance of optimism these young adults shared before a White policeman (Ed Skrein) turned everything upside down. There’s the struggle Tish faces working a perfume counter through pregnancy pains that risk putting her on the ground. The suffering in Fonny’s eyes every time she comes to visit him in prison that says what his words don’t. And the necessity to earn extra money to pay a good lawyer (Finn Wittrock) isn’t lost on anyone—including him. It might be brief, but a vignette with Tish narrating the attorney’s awakening to just how bad the system is can’t be understated. Neither can a potent aside categorizing her perfume customers into boxes spanning bad to worse.

These hardships only amplify the perfect symphonic beauty of those glimpses into the past whether Tish and Fonny as children in a bathtub or much older in a naked embrace. James Laxton‘s gorgeous cinematography transports us there as Nicholas Britell‘s unforgettable score soars to accompany every instance that depicts the unbreakable bond of emotion shared by these two kids despite the harshness surrounding them. When we hear those strings we know the pain will be washed away at least for a little while, the only thing remaining between Tish and Fonny being their devotion to the other. They make the most of these tiny moments, staring in silent reverie at this person they could never imagine living without. That love sustains them, making them whole despite their circumstances.

And it’s visible in the others too. The delicate care with which Sharon and Joseph treat Tish’s announcement that they will soon be grandparents is heartwarmingly pure. The fire that rises within her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) anytime someone dares diminish this expectant mother’s worth is empowering just as Fonny’s father’s (Michael Beach‘s Frank) aggression carries relevance even if it’s expressed in less than savory ways. With a country threatening to consume them, they must stand tall for themselves. That’s not to say their work will bear fruit—it seems as if it rarely does today and we’re four decades removed in time (but not yet in understanding or equity). Love can conquer despite bondage by providing freedom of mind and spirit while the body remains in chains.

The message is about community coming together to do what outsiders refuse. It’s about acknowledging the work to be done in their names rather than God’s because too often it’s the oppressors who wield God as a weapon and therefore the enemy. Allies are found in other marginalized people whether kindness and charity from Diego Luna‘s Pedrocito or the sort of blanket humanity provided by Dave Franco‘s Levy that should be bare minimum compassion yet feels much more powerful since we’re made to understand even that’s too much for many. We’re seeing exceptions to the rule and even then they cannot always supply what’s needed. When it comes to Victoria Rogers’ (Emily Rios) role in Tish and Fonny’s story, “the right thing” isn’t always black or white.

They can’t rely solely on strangers because what they face is bigger than that. The exchange shared between Skrein, Layne, and James ultimately proves more traumatic than we could expect because it shifts intent from racial to personal. The filmmakers have created a story that uncovers the larger issues at-hand while still finding a way to bring things to the ground floor to ensure we aren’t watching statistics. These are men and women—victims of empowered monsters utilizing a corrupt system to satisfy their greed rather than the system alone. If Beale Street Could Talk starts with a quote that states all Black people were born there and the metaphor isn’t wrong. These characters are as much universal archetypes in Black history as specific people in their own.

Each actor must therefore go above and beyond in the way they portray themselves as placeholders as much as three-dimensional beings. Jenkins lends artifice to certain interactions through elongated pacing with extra pauses because that theatricality keeps us on the line between viewing what’s going on and experiencing it. You want to scream with approval when Tish and Ernestine let their decency and empathy dissolve in order to meet aggression with their own and laugh with Joseph and Frank when they realize the hustle is what they do. We’re on the stage with them, wrapped up in the mood and atmosphere until it spills out of the frame to envelop us with its poignant display of enlightenment. Love will protect us. Love will set us free.

[1] KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny star in Barry Jenkins’ IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release Credit: Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures
[2] Click here to view this image: [Stephan James as Fonny and KiKi Layne as Tish star in Barry Jenkins’ IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.]
Stephan James as Fonny and KiKi Layne as Tish star in Barry Jenkins’ IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures. ©2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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