In my post-Captain Marvel excitement last week I completely forgot about this film. I didn’t manage to fit it in before the Oscars but it has been a few weeks now. It’s been a weird feeling not having to rush to find a film to review in time. In fact, I’m so far ahead of where I usually am in terms of the films I’ve watched recently that I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I was even contemplating going crazy and adding an additional post to my schedule. I think I’m already 3 films ahead so it’ll be another month before I really need to watch something new. Long gone are the days when I would be forced to watch a Netflix film just to get something written. What with my 2018 reading count and this, it feels like 2019 really could end up being the year I become a better functioning blogger. Can you imagine? We might even get to a point where I’m madly trying to get posts finished before midnight. Maybe I’ll actually start preparing them ahead of time? I’m not sure I’m ready to bring that level of organisation to my personal pursuits though. I like to maintain the air of a plucky amateur so people don’t expect too much from me!
Barry Jenkins has been working on his adaptation of James Baldwin”s novel for years. It is a project he’s been wanting to make for years having written the screenplay during 2013 when he was writing Moonlight. Now that his dream has been realised it is an absolute travesty that If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t earn him a Best Director or a Best Picture nomination. Especially when you consider some of the shit that were nominated. As we saw with his Oscar-winning picture Moonlight, Jenkins has the ability to take a very personal story and make it feel universal. He can take a specific setting or time and make it seem like it could be happening anywhere. His films manage to be both intimate and specific and all-encompassing.
His latest tells the story of a young couple and their road to find the happiness they know they deserve. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) have known each other forever by the time they realise they’re hopelessly in love. They are super close but wary of each as they gross the line between friendship and romance. We first see them walking together completely consumed with each other. This is a glimpse of the dreaminess and endless possibilities of early love. At this point, the pair can do anything and have no worries. Something that is quickly rectified as we discover the harsh reality that ripped their future away from them. Fonny is currently in prison having been charged with sexually assaulting a woman. It is a charge that neither Tish, her family, Fonny’s family believe. So, Tish intends to fight to get her fiance back and the pressure is on as she finds out she is expecting Fonny’s child.
For a film like this, it is utterly important that the audience believes in the central love story. If we weren’t absolutely sure that Tish and Fonny were as meant to be as they claim If Beale Street Could Talk would fall apart. Thankfully, Jenkins and co. manage to completely sell it. The film is simple and truthful. It has a tenderness about it but isn’t afraid to show the toughness that everyone has to face at some point. This isn’t just the kind of love you hear about in love songs or poems. This is the kind of love that actually exists. Underneath it all, this is an incredibly sweet and romantic story.
But that’s not to say that it is overly saccharine. There is truth here and a desire to show people as they are. We see the ugly side of these people as well. There’s Fonny’s God-fearing mother who blames Tish for her son’s predicament, his father who treats his wife like shit, and the police officer who holds the key to the lad’s arrest. There is plenty of social and political analysis on-screen. Meaning, despite its 1970s setting, If Beale Street Could Talk feels very current and extremely relevant. It is an important film with a huge message. However, it never feels like it. This is an extremely watchable and sweet film. The two main actors are perfect in their roles and manage to convince you of their love with only a look. It is a polemic film that is brilliantly masquerading as a romance.
There’s one thing Barry Jenkins is very good at and that’s telling stories in a beautiful way. If Beale Street Could Talk truly honours its source material and is a visually stunning. There is an ethereal glow that follows these characters throughout their story. As we move between the past and the present, the screen is filled with a warm haze that evokes memories and lost dreams. It is beautifully presented and beautifully acted. Aside from the two lovers, Regina King is breathtaking in the role of Tish’s mother. Every move she makes on-screen is perfect. The almost imperceptible motions that carry so much weight. There really was only ever one choice for the Best Supporting Actress this awards seasons.
This is an important film. It is unafraid to celebrate love without moving into irritating Baz Luhrmann territories. It doesn’t pretend that love can save you but it does show you that it can help you grow. We see Tish grow into a strong and independent woman through her faith in Fonny and her need to bring him home. We see the strength of her mother whilst supporting her daughter. This film offers a positive yet wholehearted and not at all patronising view of a black community. We see men who are flawed yet respectful and, ultimately, good. This is a film that says so much by saying so little. It’s wonderful. It will leave you sobbing, full of hope, and angry with the way things are.