Directed by: Barry Jenkins. Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King. Runtime: 1h 59 min. Released: December 25, 2018.
The prologue to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from a 1974 novel by James Baldwin, set up my expectations for the film well. “Beale Street is a street in New Orleans where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America is born on Beale Street…” it reads. “Beale Street is our legacy. Beale Street is a loud street. It is left to the reader [viewer] to discern a meaning in the beating of the drums.”
This is a great introduction to the story and set up my expectations that the film is more about the character’s experiences, and the black experience, than anything else. It’s a love story surviving through hate, about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James). Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and Tish is pregnant with his baby, and Tish and her family try to prove his innocence.
Wrongful conviction movies are one of my favourite kind-of films and while that’s going on in Beale Street, the film takes a different kind-of approach to it. Through the film, it accurately portrays that it is an unjust system and there’s no winning against it. More importantly, it depicts the world as being unjust. The legal parts of the film where the characters try and prove Fonny’s innocence are solid but few and far between. That’s because it’s about the love story between Tish and Fonny.
This part of the film is beautiful. The chemistry between them shines through and these are strong performances from KiKi Layne and Stephan James that carry the film adequately. They’re star-making performances, but Stephan James also seems like he could be a strong character actor, too, but he’s held his own as the lead role, like when he starred as Jesse Owens in the 2016 film Race. Here, both of the starring performances are quiet and reserved, and the drama here is never loud, either.
Layne’s voice-over narration that adds context to the character’s experience is a highlight throughout the film. The narration is consistently lovely and her voice is so soft that it’s really endearing. The performances all feel quiet throughout, and others in the cast shine, too, especially Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers. She won an Oscar for the performance and it’s deserved, in two key scenes, when she fights for Fonny near the end of the film and close to the very beginning when the family gathers Fonny’s family and they tell them that Tish is pregnant. This scene is also the strongest in terms of dialogue and is one of the only times that the drama is explosive and close to shouting. It’s fair to say the film peaks for me in this scene because there’s so much power in the cast’s words in this scene. One more thing about Regina King, she makes the best of her screen time, and I thought Beale Street only got better when King was on-screen.
Director Barry Jenkins brings a great vision to this beautiful, timeless story. The film isn’t always eventful because it’s very talky and just about humans loving each other, and it’s not often flashy. There’s almost always meaning and power in its dialogue. It made the experiences of these characters easily understandable, even though I could tell the significance of some scenes went over my head. I loved the meaning I found in the beating of the film’s drums and I’d love to read the novel. Speaking of drums, the score by Nicholas Britell and its use of jazz is stunning, never interfering with the story or overpowering the performances, only enhancing the experience.