TIFF 18: Barry Jenkins and Cast Poignantly Capture Black Love in All Its Forms in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ – Review
The words of James Baldwin are ones that are powerfully felt throughout the world. Always precise and poetic, Baldwin continually captured the Black experience in America in his pieces and this is no different in If Beale Street Could Talk. A portrait of love, If Beale Street Could Talk has a hope and resilience that director, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy) expertly brings to life on the silver screen.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are in love. Having known one another since they were children, everything between the pair is rich and organic. It was a friendship that blossomed into love in the most purest of ways, but it was not without its hardships. At the peak of their love, the two are forced apart, and Tish finds herself having to see Fonny behind glass after he’s wrongfully accused and imprisoned of a crime he did not commit. Having to navigate this new life apart, Tish has news to share with Fonny, wanting him to be the first person to know – she is pregnant.
The Rivers family matriarch, Sharon (Regina King), is the second person to know about her 19-year-old daughter’s pregnancy and she is Tish’s number one supporter. Her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), while surprised at first because as he puts it to his daughter, “you’re so young”, is ultimately the proud grandfather when he gets the news, wanting to be the one to break the news to Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach). Tish’s older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) reminds her baby sister to “unbow your head” and be strong. While Tish’s family is more than supportive, the same cannot be said for Fonny’s family, other than his father, Frank. His mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Willis) doesn’t believe Tish to be good enough for Fonny, or as Tish realizes, “not good enough for her”.
Proving Fonny’s innocence and bringing him home has always been Tish’s priority, but the knowledge that their child will soon enter the world fuels an entirely new fire within her and with the help of her family, the fight for Fonny’s life becomes even more urgent. Tish says it best when she tells Fonny, “…and I understand what you’re going through, because I’m with you.” However, regardless of how much you are rooting for Fonny and Tish to be together again, you know in your heart of hearts that things will not be that easy for them – although you yearn for it to be.
If Beale Street Could Talk never misses a beat and while it is a film that could be classified as a slow burn, it yields satisfying results. The time and utter care that Jenkins clearly put into the film is unmistakable and this can truly be seen in every second spent with the amazing cast of the film. Leading lady, KiKi Layne is stunning in her feature film debut. Layne plays Tish with a sweetness and vulnerability that is rather remarkable, while at the same time playing to Tish’s strength and steadfastness. The chemistry between Layne and her leading man, Stephan James is off the charts. The duo are dynamic in so many ways, capturing just what young love is. It is happy, bold, caring and at times filled with complexities, but there is a purity there that cannot be stripped away, and both Layne and James capture the essence of that magic perfectly.
Regina King as Sharon is nothing short of amazing. Sharon is a mother who would do anything for her children, including going to Puerto Rico to save the love of her daughter’s life. Watching the film, I feel as though King was made to be Sharon – this strong, smart, loving woman who wants the best for her children and family, going to any lengths to ensure that this happens. In fact, one of my favourite scenes from the film is a silent King, looking at herself in the mirror in Puerto Rico. King conveys so much with just a look, her eyes and body language speaking volumes as she puts on her wig and then takes it off, as she’s reflected in the mirror. King commands the audience’s attention in every scene.
Another standout performance comes from Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s old friend, Daniel. While Henry does not have as much screen time as his counterparts, he damn sure makes the most of it. In a scene where Daniel and Fonny find themselves talking about what has been happening in their lives. Daniel was recently released from prison on a charge that included stealing a car – but Daniel doesn’t even know how to drive, and while he talks about the dark days he experienced, it serves as foreshadowing for Fonny, as he too ultimately suffers the same unjust fate. The moment the two friends share encapsulates the love and trust between the two friends, which is truly rare to witness on screen between two men, specifically two Black men.
Once again, Jenkins has created something special. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins brings to life a story that is not often seen or depicted well on the big screen and that is Black love. This does not just stop at the relationship between Tish and Fonny, but also the love of a mother and child, the bond between siblings, the love of one’s city and the love between friends. Jenkins captures all of these elements found within Baldwin’s novel and he makes it all so beautiful. It’s in the close-ups of the characters’ faces as they convey their feelings not with words, but with just a look. It’s captured in the vibrance of the colours throughout the film, the score and of course, the timely and dynamic dialogue.
If Beale Street Could Talk was certainly an ode to Baldwin’s experience of Blackness, with themes that stretch the gamut of love, mass incarceration, an unfair judicial system and systemic racism – and while it is set in the past, these are all themes that are very relevant today. But despite all of this, love and strength endure. There’s a resilience not only in the story and words, but in the fact that this film truly depicts and encompasses the unbreakable spirit of Black people.