Released: 7th February
Seen: 18th February
In America today, one of the major issues is the way people are shuttled through the prison system, specifically people of colour. Thanks to a large amount of systemic racism that poisoned the prison system, African Americans now make up over a third of the prison population while only making up roughly a tenth of the American population. For me to go further into the details of what this means would be a pointless aside, though if you want the full context you’re going to need for this film then I suggest watching the amazing (and should’ve been Academy Award winning) documentary 13th on Netflix. The story of the prison system and what it has done to black American’s is the backdrop for If Beale Street Could Talk and while you might not need that bit of knowledge, it will make the film a richer experience.
If Beale Street Could Talk is based on the 1974 book by author James Baldwin and follows young Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) who is engaged to Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) who has just been charged with a horrible crime, one that he did not do. Tish, who is pregnant with his child, tries desperately to prove him innocent by finding the alleged victim who has run off to Puerto Rico. In Tish’s quest to prove her fiancé’s innocence, she gets help from her mother Sharon (Regina King), her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) and her father Joseph (Colman Domingo) who all fight alongside her to try and find a way to get Fonny out of jail. Intercut with this story, through a series of gradual flashbacks, we learn more and more about Tish and Fonny’s relationship and how they went from childhood friends to soul mates.
Can I just say this is one of my favourite films of the year so far? Because it’s a brilliantly executed romantic drama where every second you spend with these two is a second that you want everything to turn out OK for them. Through very specifically chosen shots, Barry Jenkins lets the characters speak directly to the audience so we can feel the pure love and warmth that these characters have, even when they have to have these sweet loving moments through a large pane of glass in the middle of a prison. The leads are some of the sweetest genuine people to have ever been put on screen and they make it easy to root for them to make it, despite a system of incarceration that threatens to put a barrier between them. The fact that this film pointedly addresses the issue of incarceration of innocent men and where that inevitably leads, all while telling a sweet romantic story is just brilliant. It pulls you in with the promise of a romance but makes sure that with every moment, you’re reminded of the injustice that permeates the system.
Regina King got nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in this movie and I will not be shocked at all if she takes that award home and places it upon her mantle. It’s a glorious performance that pulls at the heartstrings and is just full of a mother’s love. She has so many truly great scenes in this movie, though I think it’s pretty much unanimous that her best work in the film is right near the end and I’m not going to spoil it but be warned, it’s pretty much perfection and should’ve ended with her looking directly to camera and saying “Carve my name on that statue now” because that’s what should be happening. I’m also genuinely stunned that this film, in general, isn’t nominated for Best Picture, it’s a great romance with perfect performances and a very important message that hovers just under the surface, right up until the last minute when it comes out and slaps the audience in the face with the harsh reality of what the system can do.
The film does admittedly have a slow pace, and it uses it perfectly to let you become entangled in this world and in the lives of these people. It’s not afraid of pauses and silence and while some films might do this and it just feels pointless, here it’s intentional and allows the drama or sweetness of any given moment to wash over the audience. Its script is perfectly balanced to let certain key scenes breathe, we’re given a chance to bathe in this sweet little story so that we’ll get to appreciate every facet of this relationship that’s been thrown a curveball thanks to a major problem with the US prison system. It’s certainly got some moments of intense energy, including a confrontation in the opening of the movie between the families of Tish and Fonny that has several brilliantly delivered barbs that everyone sells.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a great romantic film that isn’t afraid to have a social message hidden underneath the sweetness. Filled with brilliant performances and a great script, its confirmation that Barry Jenkins is a director who should basically just be given money any time he asks for it to make a film because he has created something truly beautiful and I can’t wait to see more.