Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

I didn’t think I was going to cry when I saw this film. But alas, by the end I found my shoulders quaking as I erupted in tears. And while I was of course super ecstatic when Regina King won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film, I didn’t truly understand at the time why she won the award because I hadn’t yet seen the film. It wasn’t until I saw the film that my appreciation for Regina King’s acting deepened.

The film, based on the novel by James Baldwin, is about a young black couple, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt and Tish Rivers, living in Harlem. Tish announces to her family that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child and while her mom, dad and sister Ernestine (played brilliantly by Dear White People‘s Teyonah Parris) celebrate her pregnancy, Fonny’s family does not. Tish not only has to deal with Fonny’s family’s disapproval of her, but also Fonny’s incarceration. Victoria Rogers, a young Puerto Rican woman, accused Fonny of raping her when she has to point out her rapist in a line of black men. Sharon, Tish’s mom, goes to Puerto Rico to tell Victoria that Fonny didn’t rape her, but it doesn’t end up working too well. Even when they are young, Tish and Fonny still live in a brutal world where police will still accuse them of doing things just because they are black.

This film is important because racial injustice is still a messy reality even though social media has allowed people to spread awareness of incidents of this injustice. In Fruitvale Station, for instance, the white lady Oscar Grant meets earlier at the grocery store records the moment where the white police officer holds Oscar and his friends hostage and accuses them of starting the fight on the train, when in reality the white inmate of Oscar’s started the fight. However, at the time James Baldwin wrote If Beale Street Could Talk, there was no social media or smart phones. Jenkins illustrates this point by putting historical photos of white police officers beating black men and arresting them. I know the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is overused, but in this case, it’s more relevant than ever. Even without physical words, seeing these brutal images of police brutality in the 1960s reminds us how important it is to talk about the intersectionality of criminal justice and racial injustice, even if it is hard to discuss.

I was sad I never got to see it on the big screen, but the benefit of seeing a movie like this on a DVD player is that you get to watch extras, such as deleted scenes and a behind the scenes look at the film’s production. Also, like, let’s be real. If Annapurna Productions can give us gut-wrenching films like Detroit, they can certainly deliver a gem like Beale Street. The deleted scenes, while they didn’t make their way into the film, are key to the story-line and left me trying to catch my breath because the acting is just so brilliant. Also, watching the feature about the making of If Beale Street Could Talk was pretty awesome because I learned about why Barry Jenkins made the film, the inspiration behind the costume design and makeup, and why the cast was perfect for this film. I got to hear what the actors had to say about their characters and hear about what Barry Jenkins loved about working with these actors. In one powerful scene, Fonny’s family confronts the Rivers family about Tish’s pregnancy, and I swear, I was snapping my fingers the whole time and my mouth stayed in an “O” shape for as long as I can remember because there were so many disses that Ernestine, Sharon and Fonny’s mom dished out to each other.

Barry Jenkins was the perfect director for this film. If you haven’t yet seen his film Moonlight, I recommend you watch it. While you don’t of course have to watch it before watching If Beale Street Could Talk, watching Moonlight and then watching If Beale Street Could Talk gave me a greater understanding of why Jenkins chose a certain lighting or way of zooming in on the characters. The cinematography of Moonlight (courtesy of James Laxton) was incredible, and I don’t think I will ever get tired of this film for that reason. I honestly wouldn’t know how to describe the beauty of Jenkins’ filming, because it has its own unique style. The lighting, the focus on the characters’ facial expressions, and the brilliant beautiful music score made Moonlight a kind of beautiful that’s just super hard to describe unless you see the film for yourself. It’s the same with Beale Street; you just need to watch it to know why it’s so incredible.

And I of course would be remiss if I didn’t also recommend you read the novel If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. I first heard about it when I heard they were making a movie based on the book. Before that I had read Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, and I also saw the documentary on James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro (if you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend you do so. Powerful film). But I didn’t know about If Beale Street Could Talk; maybe I had passed by it in the library and ruffled through its pages, but I didn’t read it until I saw the trailer for the film adaptation. When I heard Barry Jenkins was directing it, I immediately grabbed a copy and started reading. I devoured that book like it was a delicious meal; it grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Baldwin’s raw depictions of sexuality, black womanhood, black masculinity, love, pain, and racial injustice got deep down into the pits of my soul and tugged so hard at my heartstrings I thought I would pass out. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. The cast of Beale Street wanted to pay tribute to a legend (aka James Baldwin) and they certainly delivered that tribute through their hard work and dedication during the production of this film. Incredible novel and film. This review doesn’t do justice to how moving both of them are.

If Beale Street Could Talk. 2018. Rated R for language and some sexual content.

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