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« Oscar's Foreign Race Pt 7 - Famous Auteurs / Frequent Oscar-Seekers | Main | Would you rather? »
Thursday
Dec132018

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

by Murtada Elfadl

 

If Beale Street Could Talk starts with Tish (Kiki Layne) asking her boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) “Are you ready for this?” I have been ready for a James Baldwin film adaptation for many years. Since I read "Giovanni’s Room" as a young teen and my mind was opened to queer stories. Since I was given "The Fire Next Time" to read as I made the decision to immigrate to the United States, so that I know what I was getting myself into. "Another Country" remains my favorite novel of all time. I am biased for Baldwin, for his writing, for his ideas, for his power, so I was excited for this film. I was also afraid. Will Barry Jenkins be able to interpret Baldwin’s howls of anger and despair as loud as I heard them reading Baldwin’s prose? I needn’t have worried.

Set in early-1970s Harlem, Beale Street is about how Fonny and Tish are separated when he’s arrested for a rape that he did not commit...

Tish, while pregnant with Fonny’s child, seeks the help of her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) to try to prove Fonny’s innocence. All the while in flashback we see how they fell in love, and how a racist cop (Ed Skrein) framed him for this crime. It’s a love story but also a film of ideas about what it means to be born black in this country.

Brian Tyree Henry in his long and riveting cameo

 The centerpiece scene of the film - think of it as a microcosm of the movie’s ideas and themes - is when Brian Tyree Henry appears as a friend of Fonny’s who has recently been released from prison for a trumped up charge. Watch him as he tells his story about how that experience broke him, and the historic toll of systemic injustice in this country comes to sharp and vivid light. In King’s big scene, Sharon confronts Fonny’s accuser demanding that the Latina woman (played by Emily Rios) retract her testimony. The scene shows us how these two women of color have the same oppressor. The system, the police, the white man. Yet they can’t help each other. It’s a loud cry against injustice.

In the midst of all this Jenkins has time to spend with his characters. With Sharon as she tries on a wig, with Joseph as he savors his daughter’s pregnancy and wishes for a boy, with Fonny and Tish as they inspect an apartment, have dinner, dance and make love. As an audience we feel the privilege of being privy to these moments. King and Domingo have a warm easy chemistry that enthralls, it is contrasted with the brittle conflicted relationship Fonny’s parents (Michael Beach and Aunjanue Ellis) have with each other; sometimes the toll of life in the system brings people together, sometimes it tears them apart.

Colman Domingo & Regina King as Tish's parents

The love story is the framework for the story of systematic injustice that envelopes Tish and Fonny and prevents them from being together. And because of that, their love had to be otherwise all positive. Friends becoming lovers, taking care of each other,  treating each other with tenderness as a beautiful revolt against the violence that threatens them. It’s also the framework that opens our hearts to the ideas that Baldwin wants us to understand with this story.

Director Barry Jenkins is aided by James Laxton’s beautiful cinematography, rich with light and color and by Nicholas Britell's precise and memorable yet reticent score. In adapting Beale Street, Jenkins absorbed Baldwin, his ideas and their power, and gave us a movie to cherish.

Grade: A

If Beale Street Could Talk opens in Los Angeles and New York Friday, December 14th. It will expand nationally on Christmas Day. 

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Reader Comments (13)

Really anxious to see this movie. Thank you for the review.

December 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

All so beautifully stated and really gets at what is simultaneously delicate and robust about the film. Well done, Murtada!

December 13, 2018 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Thank you ! Did we all read "Giovanni's Room" when we were teens ... and were slightly baffled and taken ?? Now I'm curious .. about this movie

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

This sounds so good, I keep hearing about it everywhere and it's getting buzz in the awards circuit, so I'm definitely going to see it soon. Lovely review, thank you!

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGeekteller

I thought it was a terrific, lovely film but with some flaws. I don't think the voiceovers work well in the film and nor was it necessary since the film was already so infused with Baldwin's voice. My only other criticism is the abruptness of the ending. All the build up to proving Fonny's fate and it's just resolved with a voiceover. The film's use of color and the music is great. Barry Jenkins's affinity for Wong Kar Wai is quite visible in many moments.

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Was lucky enough to attend a screening of Beale Street with Mr. Jenkins in attendance this week. This is a work of great beauty. The casting (the wonderful Kiki Layne is a revelation) is perfect, the cinematography is lovely to look at. It's also fearless in tackling the most vital themes in American life. Brian Tyree Henry's monologue is heartbreaking and trenchant. I hope this film gets the awards recognition it deserves.

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

We don’t deserve something this beautiful in 2018...

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I loved it! Hadn't anticipated that would be my response since the trailers are so muted to me for an exciting film. Moonlight and Medicine were exercises in style that feel clinical in relation to this movie. This is Jenkins' best film of the three movies he's made. His most confident and satisfactory. Only two performances in the ensemble were problematic: Dave Franco and Kiki Layne. I feel she was cast solely on her aesthetic feeling period and correct for this naive character. She's really green to me when contrasted with the rest of the ensemble. King's confrontation with the accuser haunts me hours after having seen the movie earlier today. That moment and that moment alone is why there was a major push for her. She could win but if Adams sweeps multiple televised precursors they just won't go there. Barry Jenkins deserves a second adapted screenplay Oscar since they won't even bother to make him happen yet in best director. Beale Street is in my top three movies of the year. I plan to see it again on Monday.

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

/3rtful can be so negative and pessimistic that a “could win” is really a great shot. Go Regina!

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFdr

Every major publication’s coverage of the SAG noms points out Regina King’s shocking omission which bolsters her narrative, I think. It shows widespread support for her performance (and her career as a whole) in addition to establishing her status as a real contender for voters who may not have given her serious consideration for whatever bizzare reason.

December 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJ

I have cried multiple times at the full preview and will come to back to these when I see it at a preview screening on Weds. The preview is just dripping with the Barry Jenkins brand of humaneness - no matter what circumstances he describes, he always comes back to the ways we can be loved and healed.

Thank you Murtada.

December 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I really appreciate all the kind comments on this review. I felt this film on an deep emotional level and I hope that came through in the writing.

December 18, 2018 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

Another beautiful film from Barry Jenkins...
He has told two stories I've not seen before

December 31, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDO

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