TIFF18 Film Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by Barry Jenkins

Reading Time: 6 minutes

See him. See her. See us. See Black people for who we are and not what you think we are or should be. These are just some of the statements Barry Jenkins makes in his newest film If Beale Street Could Talk.

Adapted from James Baldwin’s book of the same title, Jenkins takes a story that is narrated mostly in what I call the ‘first-person internal dialogue’ of 19-year-old Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (KiKi Layne), and takes viewers on a visual and spoken journey with her. We follow her as she tries to figure out a way to get her boyfriend 20-year-old Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) out of prison, and clear his name after he has been wrongfully accused of rape.

The film starts with Tish and Fonny staring at each other through the plexiglass partition of a prison’s visitor booth. With one shot we can see how much love these two young people have for each other. As their eyes shift across their lover’s face in measured, thoughtful movements you know they are trying to memorize this moment because it will be gone in an instant never to return again. With Tish reminiscing about how she and Fonny came to be, we see them as children splashing in a bathtub full of suds and playing on the sidewalks of Beale Street. We see them grow from childhood to young adults discovering for the first time that their love for each other has grown too.

One of the most powerful sequences (and this film is filled with many) in If Beale Street Could Talk, occurs when Tish breaks the news of her pregnancy to her mother Sharon (Regina King). Expecting an outburst of anger and disappointment, Tish hesitantly lets her mother know that she will take responsibility for the baby once it’s born. To Tish’s relief, Sharon stays calm and reassures her the baby is a good thing. When her father Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) arrive home, Tish once again goes through the same apprehension of delivering the potentially unwelcome news. But again, we are shown that the King family is one where they support and uplift each other, which unfortunately cannot be said for Fonny’s.

Wanting to share the good news and formulate a plan on how to support Tish in Fonny’s absence, Joseph calls his parents Frank (Michael Beach), Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), sisters Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian, I love her name) and Shelia (Dominique Thorne). From the moment the Hunts walk through the door, it becomes quite obvious there is absolutely no love lost between the women of both families. After the announcement is made, Mrs. Hunt goes on what can only be described as a tirade of piousness and proceeds to literally curse the child in Tish’s womb. Hearing the vitriol being spewed, Frank backhands Mrs. Frank to the floor and is taken out of the house by Joseph at Sharon’s urging.

What makes this scene so shocking and interesting to me is the lack of empathy shown to Mrs. Hunt. When I read this in the book I was offended on Mrs. Hunt’s behalf at how casually the abuse she suffered was being treated but seeing it on-screen I felt a bit different. On one hand, it was upsetting to see Frank hit his wife without the slightest hesitation and have no one admonish him or make an exclamation of dismay. But on the other, I almost didn’t care because of how she was treating Tish, which left me personally feeling confused and shows how seeing a scene acted out can change our perspective, and it happened twice during the film. The second time is when Sharon goes to Puerto Rico to find Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) the woman who has accused Fonny of raping her. When Sharon finds Victoria, she begs her to return to Harlem and reveal the truth that it was a cop who told Victoria to pin the blame on Fonny. Both of these women broke my heart because they both wanted justice but were scared for different reasons.

For Sharon, she knows that Fonny is innocent and all he needs to be released is Victoria admitting the truth, and in a subconscious bid to earn her favor, Sharon start calling her “Sister”. But her desperation to save this young man she sees as a son practically blinds her to Victoria’s distress at being found. Victoria, knowing that she emotionally and mentally can’t go back tries her best to get Sharon to see her side of the situation. She feels guilty that Fonny is being used as a scapegoat,  but her fear and need for self-preservation prevents her from doing so. In one gut-wrenchingly devastating moment both women reach their breaking point and begin weeping, and so did I. As a woman, I understood Victoria’s need to protect herself after being violated, and as a Black woman, I understood Sharon’s need to prevent another Black man from being wrongfully convicted.

I must commend Barry Jenkins for writing and directing these two sequences in the most thoughtful manner possible. He treated the revelation of Tish’s pregnancy to her family and the subsequent fall out with respect, showing how all Black families are not the same. When Ernestine tells Tish to “Unbow” her head, I felt it in my soul. There have been many times I needed to hear someone say this to me, and a couple of days following the premiere screening at TIFF, I was told almost that very thing by a fellow Black woman after I had a racist slur shouted at me. With Sharon and Victoria’s scene, each character was given time to express their feelings both verbally and physically. For me, it was very important that both of these women were not short-changed in their screen time when dealing with this topic. In this day and age, it is vital that we see women of color being allowed to give voice to the hurt they have suffered and the need for justice.

As he did with 2016’s Oscar-winning Moonlight, Jenkins use color and at times the absence of it to showcase the beauty of Black skin. Set to a score composed by Nicholas Britell’s (Moonlight) haunting string sections – particularly what I call “Tish & Fonny’s Theme” – that both devastated and healed me, we feel as well as see them in their most vulnerable states. In the subdued lighting of his sculpting studio and the wisps of cigarette smoke, the angles and planes of their bodies are revealed in the same way his sculptures slowly take shape.

Being a dark skin Black woman I have longed to see more women who look like me on-screen playing characters that fill the complexity of all that we are, and I saw that in Tish, Sharon, Ernestine and even Fonny’s family. If Beale Street Could Talk is the first time that I have seen Black skin celebrated this way on-screen. Throughout the film, Jenkins uses extended close-ups of the characters’ faces giving the audience no choice but to look at them. To see the different shades of brown in their skin, the texture of their hair, the shape of their noses and the expression on their faces. I see If Beale Street Could Talk as a portrait of Blackness and all of its beauty and flaws with the theatre screen acting as a mural, showing everything about these people is there to be noticed if you care to look.

When the films ends, it does so somewhat ambiguously. For some, it may seem incomplete because there is no definite resolution, but the truth is that’s the reality for many Black men, women and non-Black people of color in prison in North America. If Beale Street Could Talk tells us a story about the unshakable faith Tish has for Fonny, the loyalty between sisters, a mother’s love for her adopted son and a father’s unwavering support for his daughter. If our streets could talk I hope they would be able to say the same thing?

If Beale Street Could Talk had its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and was the first runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award.