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Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

December 28, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Following up his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight, Barry Jenkins brings James Baldwin’s work to the screen with a highly lyrical sensibility in his latest film If Beale Street Could Talk.

Based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alfonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), a young couple in Harlem who find out she is pregnant just as he is put in jail on false rape accusations. This leaves Tish and her family trying desperately to clear Fonny’s name, and get him released before the birth of their child.

This film was always, perhaps unfairly, going to be compared to Moonlight, and it’s worth noting right off the bat that If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t hit me as hard as that knockout 2016 film. This one wanders around a bit more, taking on a very literary quality through the voiceover narration, and the way the drama is framed can feel a bit stagey at times. While this more meandering tone is effective at setting a mood, occasionally the film slows things down a bit too much, lessening some of the tension.

But If Beale Street Could Talk is still a well acted and emotionally effective character piece that, despite its period setting, touches on themes of racial injustice that still resonate. One of the central messages running through the story is that love, be it familial or romantic, is the strongest force we have in this world, especially when trying to survive within a system that is inherently unfair. There is a romantic quality to the filmmaking and performances here that helps to heighten these themes.

James in particular does strong work here, even if he isn’t technically the leading character. For the film to work, there has to be absolutely no doubt in our minds that Fonny is innocent, and James does a very good job of allowing us to sympathize with him. Layne serves as both our narrator and main focal point, and the young actress does a fine job of carrying much of the film on her shoulders, a feat that is made all the more impressive considering that this is her first feature film role.

Regina King is excellent in her supporting role as Tish’s mother, a quietly fierce woman who will go to any length to ensure her grandchild won’t grow up without a father. The other standout performance in the film belongs to Brian Tyree Henry, who appears as an old friend of Fonny’s in an extended sequence that serves as one of the main centrepieces. Despite having a relatively short amount of screen time that is contained to this one section, he brings remarkable sensitivity to the role, and is a major presence within the larger fabric of the narrative. These characters are all, in their own ways, victims of a broken system, and this sequence provides a powerful microcosm of the entire story.

The film is further elevated by James Laxton’s luscious cinematography. As in his previous collaboration with Jenkins on Moonlight, Laxton once again makes memorable use of light and colour in a way that calls to mind a variety of their cinematic influences. Like Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk is also notable for its stellar use of sound design and music to help immerse us in the world of its characters, including deep cuts of classic jazz recordings that have been reinvented through the process of chopping and screwing, woven together with another ethereal score by composer Nicholas Britell.

While If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t quite grab hold of me in the same way that Moonlight did, this is still a beautifully crafted and at times poetic work that further confirms Barry Jenkins as a master of the cinematic art form. I made a point of seeing it again before finishing this review, following my initial viewing at TIFF, and I have a strong feeling that this is a film with the potential to grow in stature and resonance as time goes on.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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