If Beale Street Could Talk

Best of this year’s great films about the black experience

As I created my list of top-ten films of 2018, I noted that it was an outstanding year for films about the black-American experience and that most of those films were made by black filmmakers. Among them were Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting (written by Daveed Diggs), Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Peter Farrelly’s Green Book. But the best was saved for last, with Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, which I like even more than Moonlight, Jenkins’ Best Picture winner of 2016.

Tish (KiKi Layne) is a 19-year-old African-American woman in New York City whose fiancé, Fonny (Stephen James), is falsely arrested for raping a woman and is sitting in prison when Tish discovers that she is pregnant. After Tish’s news draws a mixed response from the wider family, the film takes us back to what has led Tish to this point, and to her and her family’s efforts to prove Fonny’s innocence.

Along the way, we get a not-so-subtle social commentary on the plight of African-Americans in the late 1960’s (“kids grow up being told they ain’t worth s***, and everything they see around them proves it”), especially with regards to police attitudes (a common theme in some of the films mentioned above).

If Beale Street Could Talk is based on a 1974 novel by James Baldwin (see Gordon’s review of I am Not Your Negro, January, 2018) and Jenkins has perfectly captured the feel of Baldwin’s writing style (note that I have not read this particular novel). The gorgeous lush cinematography, the beautiful eclectic score and the flawlessly-recreated late-sixties New York City setting combine with a slow-moving story to give us a quiet poetic experience while remaining constantly engaged with Tish’s story. That story is told, with flashbacks, more as a collection of scenes (many of which are pure magic) than as a linear narrative.

Along the way, we get a not-so-subtle social commentary on the plight of African-Americans in the late 1960’s.

While the above paragraph describes what I liked best about If Beale Street Could Talk, the film also features superb acting, especially by Regina King as Tish’s mother, Sharon. King just won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and it’s well-deserved (with an Oscar also likely). Tish’s father, Joe, is played by Colman Domingo; her sister, Ernestine, by Teyonah Parris,; Fonny’s father, Frank, by Michael Beach; and Brian Tyree Henry stands out as Fonny’s friend, Danny.

One of the more shocking (and possibly offensive to readers) scenes in the film involves an argument about Christianity. Specifically, Fonny’s mother, who is a conservative Christian, says some things that infuriate her husband, with dramatic results. I’m not sure what I think about this scene, but viewers should be forewarned while also knowing that it is the only scene of its kind in the film. The dark picture this scene paints no doubt reflects Baldwin’s negative experience growing up in the church (his stepfather was a preacher), but I was somewhat relieved (and surprised) to see another scene involving Christianity that was entirely positive.

If Beale Street Could Talk is not a flawless film. An important plot thread involving Danny is left hanging (as far as I could tell) and there are a few other confusing elements about the story’s resolution. Nevertheless, If Beale Street Could Talk is one of my favourite films of 2018 and the most beautiful and profound of the year’s excellent films about the black-American experience.

If Beale Street Could Talk is rated R for language and some sexual content.

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