Steeped in love: If Beale Street Could Talk holds legacy at its core

KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny star in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, an Annapurna Pictures release. Image courtesy Annapurna Pictures KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny star in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, an Annapurna Pictures release. Image courtesy Annapurna Pictures

Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is a moving, absorbing experience dedicated to truth and beauty in a world of deceit. Told with the same patience and elegance as his previous film, Moonlight, Beale Street is a tale of young love, a dissection of racism in our legal system, a meditation on optimism, and an involved story that could have lasted another hour without losing momentum.

The film focuses on Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne), childhood friends who fall in love as young adults in 1970s Harlem.

When Fonny is arrested for a rape committed on the other side of New York, it’s clearly a set-up by an officer with an axe to grind against an unapologetic black man. At the same time, it’s revealed that Tish is pregnant, and the family pledges to support the child—with the exception of Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), who opposes it in a religious fury.

As Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) races to locate the accuser whose disappearance means Fonny will be held indefinitely without trial, the authorities pursue the charge as a vendetta—not in the name of justice for the victim; her story is never questioned, but she did not see the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Tish struggles to keep the family together amid flashbacks to her relationship with Fonny.

If Beale Street Could Talk examines the intersection of the moment: fear, anger, and societal pressure threatening to tear apart love, art, family, and optimism. How much do we compromise before we lose ourselves in the process? How much injustice do we tolerate before it breaks us?

Jenkins directs with deliberateness, letting the emotions and themes dictate the speed of a scene, ending when there is nothing left to express in a moment rather than nothing left to say in a conversation. The director used a similar technique in Moonlight, allowing atmosphere and silence to communicate as much as dialogue. Beale Street has more characters and this poetic approach keeps the focus on the relationships amid the chaos.

“Every black person born in American was born on Beale Street,” writes Baldwin in the title screen preceding the film, “whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York, Beale Street is our legacy.” This refers to the street in Memphis, Tennessee, known as a hub of black culture, especially music. If Beale Street Could Talk is dedicated to the distinct beauty of African American culture, love, and families, which outlast efforts to contain and repress—to this day. The film is gorgeous to look at, inspiring in spite of its difficult plot, and boasts some of the best performances of this year, particularly from Regina King. A must-see.

If Beale Street Could Talk

R, 119 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

See it again: The Age of Innocence

PG, 139 minutes; Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, January 13

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056. 

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

Posted In:     Arts

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