My Favorite Movies – If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

28 Aug

By Tanner Smith

Very rarely do I use the term “beautiful” to describe a film. (The most recent one I called “a beautiful film” was Minari.) Director Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” is indeed a beautiful film, following the equally-remarkable Moonlight.

Granted, there’s a lot of roughness in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Despite its 1970s setting, a lot of issues being addressed within this story are sadly still relevant today. The film isn’t a pleasant nostalgic look back at “the good old days”–instead, it’s more of a cautionary tale during which we lament that injustices towards innocents happened back then…and still happen today.

So, why is “If Beale Street Could Talk” worthy of the term “a beautiful film?” Because, after these characters at the center of the story, all of whom we’ve come to understand and sympathize with, have undergone some truly sad circumstances, there is a real sense that they will continue living the best way they can because they have each other to lean on–and when times are tough, that’s the best you can truly hope for.

I guess it was a little too tough for the Oscars, though, seeing as how it didn’t reach the same surge as “Moonlight.” You know for whom it wasn’t too tough? The Film Independent Spirit Awards, to the rescue yet again! (Is that a common theme in my favorite movies of this past decade?)

“If Beale Street Could Talk” received Indie Spirits for Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Supporting Female. In a year that also included great nominees such as Eighth Grade and Leave No Trace, I could find any faults in the voters’ decisions. (It wasn’t totally shut out by the Academy, to be fair–it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Music Score, and it won for Best Supporting Actress.)

Based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, “If Beale Street Could Talk” takes place in Harlem in the early 1970s (and give credit where it’s due, the setting feels like another world with its great attention to detail for the time period). Our two protagonists are lovebirds Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). Tish narrates the story and tells us about how she and Fonny looked forward to a wonderful life together (they knew each other ever since they were little)…until everything changed.

Fonny has been falsely accused of rape and is in jail. The whole thing was a setup by a racist cop, and because the victim (who was raped, but not by Fonny) has fled the country and could not testify, it was Fonny’s word against the cop’s. So now, who knows what the future holds in store for Tish and Fonny now that they’re separated by the glass wall that separates them during Tish’s visits.

Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and Tish’s family is supportive (and also trying their hardest to see what they do to defend Fonny)…which is more than can be said for Fonny’s family.

Actually, Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) seems like a relatively okay guy. But Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and Fonny’s sisters, on the other hand…yikes.

In probably the best (and most intense) scene in the film, Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo) invite Fonny’s family over to the family apartment so they, Tish, and Tish’s sister (Teyonah Parris) can share the blessed news of Tish delivering new life into the world. Well…Fonny’s fanatically religious mother doesn’t feel so blessed and lets Tish know immediately that neither she nor the child will be welcomed into the family.

What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover–the scene gets pretty heavy after that, when Tish’s mother and sister come to Tish’s defense (and Tish lets out some words she’s been aching to let out probably long before this moment).

It’s a great scene, and it leads me to another reason as to why I identify the film as “beautiful”: it has a real notion of faith and love. In this scene, we have two different, conflicting versions of “faith.” Tish’s family sees Tish’s pregnancy as a reason of celebration, while Fonny’s family is mostly so self-righteous that to them it’s the opposite of a blessing. One’s faith is more authentic than the other. And one is more loving than the other too.

The extent of love comes with a pivotal sequence late in the film in which Tish’s mother visits Puerto Rico to find the rape victim and convince her to come back and testify, in an effort to help Fonny out of jail and help her daughter make her vision come alive. What results is another heartbreaking scene, in which…well, it hurts to write about (and it’d be a spoiler anyway). Regina King is excellent in these scenes; she sells the love that she feels for her daughter and for those in her daughter’s life.

Midway through the film, there’s another heavy moment, set before Fonny’s jail time (the film is told non-linearly), in which Fonny’s old friend Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry) joins Fonny after being released from prison. He tells Fonny about the tough times he endured behind bars, and it’s especially heartbreaking because we know Fonny is about to feel more or less the same things he felt.

That’s another thing I love about the film–the non-linear story structure adds more emotional weight due to scenes like that. And there’s also the moment in which Fonny first comes across that same cop that would set him up…

Faith and love is what keeps Tish and Fonny going, and they’re what will keep them going too. And long after the film is over, I can’t help but be optimistic about their future.

Because they deserve it.

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