Saturday, January 5, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk: A Review (Review #1163)


If Beale Street Could Talk, based on James Baldwin's novel, can be seen as both a direct and beautiful love story and a social justice film on the dysfunctional criminal justice system. Either way, If Beale Street Could Talk is a moving film that stumbles only at the end when it hits the viewer a touch too hard on the message it wants to send.

Told in voiceover and a series of flashbacks along 'present day', we learn of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo or Fonny Hunt (Stephan James). They have been in love since forever. On the day Fonny is going into prison for a crime eventually revealed to be rape, Tish tells their story.

Their story involves their romance, her becoming pregnant at 19 to his 22, and the difficulties this entails for both their families. Tish's ever-understanding and wise mother Sharon (Regina King), her loving father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and supportive but sarcastic sister Ernestine (Teyona Pariss) stand by her. Lonny's mother, the fiercely religious mother Alice (Anjanue Ellis) is appalled, telling Tish and Sharon to their faces she hopes this 'bastard' gets shriveled up in the womb.  Lonny's equally snobbish sisters are equally appalled, defensive of their mother.

The Hunt family is the least of their problems, though only Frank Hunt (Michael Beach) is happy about the new grandchild. We learn that Lonny is falsely accused of rape by Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), a Puerto Rican who married a New Yorker and who is having mental health issues resulting from her rape.

Image result for if beale street could talkThat Victoria was raped is not disputed, even by the Rivers'. That Victoria is herself suffering as a result of her attack is similarly not disputed. What is disputed is whether Lonny did it. Victoria had identified him in a police lineup, but that identification is questionable given that Victoria may not have had a firm look at her attacker.

It also should hinder the case against Lonny that he has an alibi: he was quite far from the attack site with both Tish and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), Lonny's friend recently out of prison for a drugs charge. He took a plea rather than run the risk of a longer sentence and is haunted by his short stint in prison.

Now Lonny faces prison for a crime he did not commit, thanks in large part to Officer Bell (Ed Skrien), with whom Lonny and Tish had a run-in and who is overtly racist. He is the one who helped Victoria identify Lonny as her attacker despite not working in the area where the attack took place.

In a desperate act to save Lonny, Sharon flies to Puerto Rico, where Victoria has fled to, in order to convince her to return and testify that Lonny is innocent. Eventually coming into contact with Victoria, it's clear that she is still traumatized by her attack and in no condition to do anything even if she were willing.

We learn that Lonny, rather than face the uncertainty of trial and a long sentence, did what many young black men incarcerated are forced to do: take a plea and plead guilty to a lesser charge even if they are innocent of all charges. By now Alonzo, Jr. is born and Tish, loyal and loving, brings their son to the prison for a visit.

Image result for if beale street could talk
If Beale Street Could Talk as I understood it is a metaphor for all black neighborhoods, the 'every story' of African-Americans. Though written in the 1970's, the story still resonates because of how well the film works as both a love story and social commentary.

We see some of the trademarks from director and screenplay adapter Barry Jenkins' previous film, Moonlight; there's the effective use of music in Nicholas Britell's score, a jazz-influenced music that both sets the mood and feels natural. There's the haunting James Laxton cinematography, a film bathed in soft colors that render things more beautiful. There are many close-ups, particularly among our lovers, who silently tell us how their bonds will survive all obstacles.

Finally, there are the performances, elegant and romantic and tender and soft. Even small roles like Dave Franco as Levy, the Jewish landlord who is willing to rent to our unmarried couple and Diego Luna as Pedrocito, a friend/waiter to Tish and Lonny are able to stand out.

However, it is the main cast that excels. Layne's Tish is gentle and loving yet strong, a woman who loves deeply and well. James does not slip as Lonny, the artist who endures with a quiet dignity yet still feels the rage of his circumstance. King is simply extraordinary as Sharon, the strong mother who never fails to be wise and compassionate. Whether she is defending her daughter against her future in-laws or expressing sensitivity to Victoria, King plays the type of mother we all wish for but few of us are blessed with.

It is a major credit to both Jenkins and Baldwin's novel that the film works on two levels. One can see If Beale Street Could Talk as a tender and beautiful love story. The main love story is that of Tish and Lonny, these two beautiful people, beautiful on every level, whose love endures through dreadful hardships yet never breaks.

You could also see it as a beautiful love story among a family. The Rivers family is a positive one, with wise and loving parents who stand by their daughters and protect one another. The strong father and mother impart wisdom and compassion. Their bonds do not break and the love they have for each other is a beautiful thing to see.

Related imageIf Beale Street Could Talk can be seen on that level, the story of love familial and romantic nearly shattered by immense, intense and unfair circumstances. However, Jenkins and Baldwin are too smart to not have us see beyond this surface. The film is also, in its quiet and elegant way, about a very contemporary problem: the incarceration of African-American men.

Tish's voiceover tells us at the end that Lonny was forced to do what many young black men do when falsely arrested: take a plea rather than have a long, dragged-out process where resources are limited and the justice system fails to protect both the accused and the victim. Daniel serves as foreshadowing, the malevolent presence of racism and disinterest among the legal system.

We see this in the limited work from Lonny's lawyer Hayward (Finn Wittrock), a lawyer who seems to care but who also can do little to nothing for his client. We see this in how it is the Rivers family who use their limited resources to help Lonny. The tragedy and unfairness of it all hits you in the same way the moving and beautiful romance between Tish and Lonny does.

It is perhaps here that If Beale Street Could Talk falters slightly. Near the end we are shown a montage of photos where we see the injustice of black men serving prison terms for crimes they did not commit, almost always because of racism. That and ending the film with the singing of My Country 'Tis of Thee struck me as gilding the lily, a bit overt in the message that takes away from the beauty and tenderness of Tish and Lonny's love story and the unfairness of their circumstance.

It's as if Jenkins did not trust us to understand what he was telling us, so he essentially was hitting us over the head in such a way that took me slightly out of the film. It does not take away from the overall brilliance and beauty of If Beale Street Could Talk, but it does feel a bit jarring and out-of-place when a more straightforward manner might have worked better.

You already have Tish tell us that Lonny, like many black men, plead guilty to something they did not do so as to spare their families more grief. That, and our embrace of these two beautiful people in love, would have been enough.

If not for this small side-trip into 'if you don't get it let me spell it out for you', If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful and elegant film about two young people in love, whose love will free them even if the world goes out of its way to keep them apart.


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