It was rather surprising, that despite director Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film “Moonlight” winning the Oscar for best picture his follow-up film, “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) seemed to be ignored by many who should have taken some notice. It’s a passionate realistic love story based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel that’s a rather skillful screen adaptation done by Jenkins, also.
This romantic melodrama set in Harlem in the early 1970s concerns the newly engaged, 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), a woman who is facing the horrible pressures of beginning a new family, while family relations try to help her prove that her long-time, 22-year-old friend, and imprisoned lover, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) has been wrongly accused of rape.
The film begins with a scroll of James Baldwin’s words from his novel, “Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and where the jazz was born…Every black person in American was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. This novel deals with the impossibility and possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy.” This is the theme of this film, as well as the injustice of the legal system, especially for African Americans.
Perry’s adaptation is told in a non-linear fashion, with Tish recalling the bits and pieces of her friendship and love for Alonzo with voice-over narration. The film’s story begins with Tish revealing to Fonny that she is pregnant with their child. Later, when Tish gathers both families together to tell them her great news, she fears the response from Fonny’s very religious mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis). Mrs. Hunt lashes out saying, “Who will be responsible for this baby?!” The baby is the creation of “evil desires”. When Fonny’s dad angrily intercedes slapping his wife’s face, tensions and more hard feelings overflow between the families.
Other memories of a first serious date, their first night of intimacy, their renting of a loft above a factory and their pledge of faithfulness are recalled. Numerous visits to the prison are shown. Then Fonny’s trial date is postponed, the family doubts some of the legal advice they are getting and Rogers has disappeared to Puerto Rico.
The background details of the alleged rape are revealed. Victoria Rogers, Puerto Rican mother of three, is Fonny’s accuser. In addition, a New York City Officer Bell claims he witnessed Fonny running from the area of Roger’s assault. Yet, this all clearly contradicts the fact Tish and Fonny’s old buddy Daniel were with Fonny at the time of the alleged attack.
So Mrs. Rivers steps up to defend her daughter. She gets on a flight to Puerto Rico to try to hunt down Victoria Rogers. When she finally meets Victoria and confronts her, Rogers reveals she basically was told to identify Fonny in a police lineup. Victoria refuses to help Tish and Fonny and becomes hysterical.
Years pass and Tish and her young son Alonzo Jr. visit Fonny in prison, who has been sentenced after numerous trial delays and a force plea deal. KiKi Layne’s impassioned solid performance is at the core of this most effectively told tale. From her strong-willed, wide-eyed optimism and the impassioned words of her voice-over narrations we feel for her situation. Regina King’s performance as Sharon is always convincing and full of honesty.
James Laxton, who shot Jenkins’ Oscar-winning “Moonlight”, provides the film with beautiful, lush cinematographic images of romantic walks in the park, strolls under umbrellas in the rain, etc.
The film received three Oscar nominations: for best adapted screenplay—Barry Jenkins, best original musical score—Nicholas Britel and Regina King received an Oscar nomination and won for best supporting actress as Sharon, Tish’s mother. Berry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a film that truly deserves a second chance.