Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ follow up to MOONLIGHT (my favourite film from 2016), is slowly making its way around the world after its initial release in the US last December. It’s not scheduled to come to Hong Kong anytime soon (and I doubt it will because black lives frankly don’t matter here) but that doesn’t mean you should miss seeing it. Like MOONLIGHT, this film is a poetic telling of the contemporary African-American experience.

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James, RACE; SELMA) have been the best of friends since they were children. Now, as young adults, their relationship is becoming romantic. Just when Fonny gets falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Tish finds out that she’s pregnant. With her family solidly by her side, Tish remains hopeful that the truth will prevail and Fonny will be released from prison before their child is born. But the wheels of American justice move slowly and the system is anything but fair for young African-American men.

Based on the acclaimed 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is also set in 1970s Harlem though it could very easily be today. According to a United States Sentencing Commission report published in 2017, black men are almost six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and, between 2011 and 2016, America’s federal courts imposed prison sentences on black men that were 19% longer than those imposed on white men who were charged with similar offences. But this is 45 years ago and Tish and her family never give up on the possibility that Fonny’s fate will be different even as they work and steal to raise enough money to keep their white lawyer from abandoning his case.

As he did with MOONLIGHT, Jenkins takes lingering close ups of his actors’ faces while Nicholas Britell’s sublime score plays softly in the background. You’ll find yourself being swept along in the characters’ tide of emotions as the story slowly unfolds. And, like in MOONLIGHT, there isn’t one weak performance here. Layne, who doesn’t have a long resume, brings remarkable honesty to Tish’s character, who starts off as a naïve 19-year-old but grows up very fast when she needs to. That happens during a powerful encounter with Fonny’s family when she tells them that she’s pregnant. The film’s shining star, though, is Regina King (TV series SEVEN SECONDS), who plays the Rivers’ steadfast matriarch, Sharon. King has already picked up a Golden Globe and close to three dozen lesser awards for this role. Not surprisingly, she’s the odd-on favourite to take home an Oscar at the end of the month for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. The actress has said in interviews that she was done playing “motherly” roles but when she heard that Jenkins was directing this film, she quickly and wisely put her plans on hold.

In one very touching scene, Sharon tells a disconsolate Tish, “If you trusted love this far, don’t panic now.” The same advice can be given to anyone who loves Jenkins’ work.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 15th at 8:30 am HK time!

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