Normally, I’m writing about geek and genre things, science fiction, fantasy, anime, etc. Things that go boom and make your eyes bleed with in-your-face special effects. Most of the time, they won’t get any sort of awards come awards season, unless they are for technical achievement. There are a lot of people who only watch these kind of movies. And then they wonder why critics lambast genre films.
If Beale Street Could Talk is one of those films that is pure cinema. Based on a novel by James Baldwin, it is a film that is complex, yet is broken down to the most simplistic idea that love is a powerful force that gives hope and strength to even the most broken of people.
Kiki Layne plays Clementine, called Tish who is having a baby. But her fiance is currently in jail awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. Alonzo, or Fonny as he is known is played by Stephen James. Through a series of flashbacks their love story is revealed to us. From when they were growing ups as little kids to their teen years, it appears as if they are destined to be together forever. Lonny shows promise as a sculptor and they plan on finding a loft together as man and wife together in a loft as is the way of so many artists. It’s a simple dream, but it’s also the early 70’s. This is reflected in a scene taken almost verbatim from James Baldwin’s novel:
“They got lofts standing empty all over the East Side, man, and don’t nobody want to rent them, except freaks like me. And they all fire traps and some of them ain’t even got no toilets. So, you figure like finding a loft ain’t going to be no sweat.” He lights the cigarette, takes a drag, and hands it to Daniel. “But, man – this country really do not like niggers. They do not like niggers so bad, man, they will rent to a leper first. I swear.”
The underlying story behind this tale of love is Baldwin’s examination of being black in America, not only of the racial tensions and the injustice of the criminal system, but of the bonds of family that can serve to unite as well as divide
Though the film features exceptional performances from its leads of James and Layne, it is very much an ensemble film with performances that ring emotionally authentic. But Regina King as Tish’s mother delivers an exceptional performance as a strong mother that is the backbone of the family and even has to travel to Puerto Rico where the victim of Fonny’s alleged crime has fled.
There is also a memorable cameo by Diego Luna as Pedrocito, the restaurant owner with a golden heart, and friend of Fonny.
Director, Barry Jenkins, whose last movie Moonlight, won an Academy Award for Best Picture, does a good job of going from flashbacks to present. His script adaptation wisely chooses to stick mostly to Baldwin’s excellent way with words. Though if you have read the book, there are some slight differences in then ending. This could not have been done without the smart editing by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders.
James Laxton’s cinematography should bon noted for creating scenes of dreamlike near fairy tale quality while interspersing with stark scenes described by Tish of the injustice of the way black men are treated, through still photos.
It may seem like If Beale Street Could Talk is a dark movie, certainly there is dark material here. But the is love that permeates every inch of this film gives hope. And that hope makes the film all the stronger. Highly Recommended.