A young Harlem couple’s romance is altered when one of them is falsely imprisoned in If Beale Street Could Talk. Childhood friends Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) begin a passionate romance with each other, with is uprooted when Fonny is jailed after being falsely accused of rape. With Tish pregnant with Fonny’s child, she fights to prove Fonny’s innocence, with the help of her family, including mother Sharon (Regina King), father Joseph (Colman Domingo), and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).
Writer and director Barry Jenkins follows up his Oscar-winning success with 2016’s Moonlight, with this adaptation of the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. The title of If Beale Street Could Talk refers to a street in New Orlean’s, which is used by Baldwin is a metaphoric sense, in regards to the plight of African Americans. Indeed, the ultimate message of this story is that these characters are victims of a system that are prejudiced against black people. This is examined early on in a scene featuring Fonny catching up with his old friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just spent two years in prison. When Fonny himself is imprisoned, Tish and her family believe that the key to proving his innocence is finding the accuser Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) in Puerto Rico and get her to admit that she falsely identified Fonny.
After winning the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight, Barry Jenkins gives himself the momentous challenge of adapting a novel written by one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. I would have to say that Jenkins does a fine good job with his adaptation, which tells a very bittersweet story of two young lovers from Harlem, who are victims of a very racist system. Even though the book and film takes place in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk is a very timeless story about the challenges of African Americans to make a life for themselves in the United States.
The plot of If Beale Street Could Talk moves back and forth between the time before and after Fonny is incarcerated, as we see the blossoming of Tish and Fonny’s romance, before it is seriously affected by Fonny’s arrest. While Tish has the undying support of her family, there is a memorable sequence early in the film featuring the very harsh reactions to Tish’s pregnancy by Fonny’s ultra-religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis). This is one of a series of dialogue-heavy scenes that form the cornerstones of the film, with others being the aforementioned scene with Daniel Carty and a sequence late in the film with a very bloodshot looking Fonny telling Tish that everything is on day going to be alright.
Even though If Beale Street Could Talk is a drama about the African American experience, it has a story that crosses the boundaries of race. This is even seen within the film itself through a number of notable non-black characters in the film played by Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, and Dave Franco. In fact, Franco’s single scene performance as a Jewish real estate agent stands out as one of few truly feel-good moments in what is over wise a very sombre and tragic story. Another standout performance in the film is Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon, who takes over the narrative for a sequence that sees her travel to Puerto Rico to confront Victoria Rogers, with the sequence also featuring a brief cameo by Game of Thrones‘ Pedro Pascal.
Altogether, I have to say that If Beale Street Could Talk is a major step up from Moonlight for Barry Jenkins and you have no heart if your eyes are still dry at the end of this bittersweet love story.