If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a sad and angry, literary adaption of James Baldwin’s novel by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins.

Born in the USA

by Alexa Dalby

If Beale Street Could Talk

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Set in early 1970s New York, If Beale Street Could Talk‘s muddy colour palette and quiet voiceovers give it a dreamlike, reminiscent feel. It’s a tragic story of love versus hatred in an unjust, prejudiced world.

Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are a young black couple , only 19 and 22, childhood friends who fall innocently and sweetly in love. When Tish gets pregnant, it causes ructions in their supportive families and yet they are still surrounded with love. But outside the family circle, society is hostile, dangerous even. Landlords won’t rent an apartment to them and eventually Fonny becomes the target of a white policeman’s hatred and is framed for a rape.

Their suffering is heartbreaking. The families try their hardest to raise money for a lawyer to set him free from the false charge but Fonny is the victim of a corrupt legal system that’s too powerful for them to fight.

The film catches the tone of Baldwin’s work. Its images are beautiful, its characters are quietly vibrant: then injustice destroys their loving world and changes their lives. The fathers of the two families, (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are easy-going but all they can do to help Vonny is to work harder to earn more. Tish’s mother (Regina King) takes brave, almost foolhardy, action to track down and confront the false complainant in a scene that is unforgettably tense. And there’s a blistering scene between Vonny and his big, ebullient friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), returned after an absence, where they talk about what it means to be a young black man in that society.

There are wonderful performances from all the actors. Visually, the film is like watching poetry. But the sadness and suffering that runs through it is almost unbearable. That’s made doubly so by the knowledge that although this film was set almost fifty years ago, injustice like this is still happening today. For Baldwin in his novel, ‘Beale Street’ meant the black experience in America, and it still does.

If Beale Street Could Talk screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 8 February 2019 in the UK.

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