Even with an Oscar-winning motion picture safely under ones’ belt, it takes a lot of heart to want to tackle a film that’s based on the script of one of America’s most loved writers and social critics. But Barry Jenkins, the guy who gave us the critically-acclaimed Moonlighting is fearless in his telling of James Baldwin’s classic, If Beale St Could Talk.
At its core, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story about two childhood friends who became lovers. But much like any good love story, their happy ever after is blighted by outside forces, this time taking shape under the guise of the political and social injustices of Baldwin’s 1960s America.
The innocence and beauty of the protagonists’ Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) love is a joy to watch, especially as the narrative unfolds through Tish’s soft perspective and Harlem drawl. The soulful flashbacks to when they were children to their discovery that they have feelings for each other, this film is also a love story between Jenkins and the art of great cinema. Visually it’s hard to fault anything in this movie. From the casting of the leads, with their caramel and cocoa complexions perfectly complementing each other to the rounded bounce of Tish’s Afro, it was a treat to watch. Their performances were soulful and believable. Of particular note was Regina King who played Tish’s mum, Sharon. The kind of warm, loving and supportive black matriarch that is often missing from movie screens, she brought an authenticity to the role that was refreshing. During the screening, her performance drew whispers of an Oscar nomination, confirmed a few weeks later when she received a nod for her portrayal.
Jenkins has described Tish’s family unit as the family that he wanted, while Moonlight was probably most close to his experience. You can understand why when you see the lack of judgement, love and support displayed by Tish’s family when she revealed her news (no spoilers). There was a metaphorical fist bump in the room when Teyonah Parris, who played Tish’s older sibling, told her to “Un-bow your head sister”. Likewise, her dad whose only concern was to do right by his baby girl. We also got to see the more familiar reaction to Tish’s news from Fonny’s mother and her daughters. Probably one of the standout scenes in the movie.
In spite of its languid pace, this film pulled no punches about the racial injustices suffered by Black people in America and it hit hard, particularly when Fonny, a “good boy” got caught up in the system. I hadn’t read the book and so didn’t know how the film would end. Ever the optimist, I was hoping for a happily ever after. What we do get is the reality of what happens in real life, a compromise and making the best of the cards that you are dealt in life.
If Beale Street Could Talk is released on February 14.