Dreamy Romance in the Urban Jungle
There is so much that is undeniably brilliant about Barry Jenkins “If Beale Street Could Talk”, stunningly the first cinema adaptation of any James Baldwin novel. Jenkins first film since his “Moonlight” won the Best Picture Oscar, is shot, acted, staged, and costumed at a superb level. There are so many wonderfully perfomed and designed scenes, and such perfect use of music and color, that pointing out the films flaws seems like picking lint. But there certainly is some lint.
Set in early 70’s Harlem, it is the story of two young lovers, nineteen-year old Tish (KiKi Lane), and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James). Tish provides voice over to move the story forward, and backward, as the story is told in recent flashback style. The two are stunningly attractive and dreamily in love, lifelong friends who saw their relationship advance into romance. The first few scenes are artful master strokes from a design standpoint. Costumes done in primary colors match the backgrounds. You find your eyes dancing around the screen, and you have plenty of time to do it.
Lane and James have difficult jobs that they manage to execute.Their characters don’t have nearly as much dramatic action as basically every other character in the film, and the bulk of their acting comes full-face, full-frame, on camera. The scenes of their courtship are languid (sometimes too languid) and use soft soul music as a dreamy backdrop. Their love story has been challenged by Fonny’s imprisonment on what is clearly a trumped-up rape charge. The victim is a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios), who is likely coerced into picking Fonny out of a lineup, and then probably sent back to Puerto Rico, to make the case easier to prosecute.
Tish learns she is pregnant with Fonny’s child and she tells him the news through prison glass. Then it is time to tell her family. They are strongly supportive, a heartwarming acceptance after Tish’s nervous reveal. Her strong-willed mother is played by Regina King, who in a brilliant performance is the heart and soul of the film. Tish’s father Joseph played by Colman Domingo and her sassy and wise sister played by Teyona Parris, are very strong and likable characters as well.
But then it’s time to tell Fonny’s family. His religious zealot of a mom (Aunjunue Ellis) and uptight sisters are wildly disapproving, much to the disgust of their easygoing dad (Michael Beach). Well, easygoing until he has had too much of his wife’s strident and harsh commentary to Tish, who mom feels is the ruin of her son. Ellis has only this scene, and has been rightly praised for her execution of it, but it is broadly overwritten. Tearing down an overly righteous character is fine, but this is a caricature.
At first, we see hope for Tish and her family. The case against Fonny seems so absurd that surely they will be able to win it and get him released. But we are operating in an environment stacked miles high against the young black man, and it’s far easier to just pin the crime on him and move on. Baldwin’s words are used directly from the book often, and they are harsh, notwithstanding their veracity. There certainly are some overt polemics here.
Baldwin paints a dark picture of the plight of the inner city African-American community, and its quite a contrast to the dreamy, lengthy, loving, flashback scenes as Fonny and Tish try to start a life together. Their first lovemaking encounter is one of the longest and slowest you will ever witness. This first sexual experience for her is treated with linen white gloves, perhaps to a fault.
Their prison visit scenes are similar. Long close-ups, loving dialogue through the glass over the phone. They are well-performed and touching. All around the couple, however, there is chaos. Tish’s sister has been able to enlist the assistance of a lawyer from a swanky firm. This, of course, is expensive, especially when Sharon decides to head to Puerto Rico herself to attempt to get Fonny’s accuser to change her testimony.
Tish’s father enlists Fonny’s dad’s assistance on a robbery scheme to raise funds. Joseph reveals this has pretty much been a way of life for him, doing what he has to do to raise a family in this oppressive environment.
Sharon’s encounter with the accuser in Puerto Rico is at the top of a list of impressively performed dramatic scenes in the film. Ellis is stunning in her desperation to help her son, but she is pleading with a shattered woman who has no desire to relive her horrible experience. Hope is starting to fade as no developments are turning the way of the young couple.
The smaller parts in the film are all well-played, from Ed Skrein as the racist cop, to Dave Franco as the Jewish landlord who is finally someone who will rent to the young black couple. The landlord is one of the handful of sympathetic white characters in the film. Franco does a fine job with his rather preachily-written speech.
Tremendously powerful supporting work is also done by Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s good friend Daniel, who has recently been released after two years in prison, wrongly sentenced there for stealing a car, even though he doesn’t know how to drive. Daniel makes you shiver with his harrowing tale of his time in jail.
A few relieving smiles are produced by Fonny’s relationship with a friendly Hispanic waiter (Diego Luna) who feeds Tish and Fonny for free at the nice restaurant he works at, and trades humorous barbs with Fonny.
Much like “Moonlight”, this is a lovely tone poem layered over a highly disturbing story. The juxtaposition doesn’t always work, but the craft with which it is delivered is undeniable. It is an only slightly flawed, fascinating, and lovely to look at film. Its pacing did not bother me, but I wouldn’t be doing my job to not tell you that it is leisurely at best. The music is lovely, but it also adds to the gauzy nature of the whole project.
Jenkins is still just 39, and he has clearly completely hit his stride on the artistic side, while to me still grappling a bit with how to not let that take the sting out of the messages that he clearly wants to get across.
I very much look forward to his next effort to do so.