TIFF Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Is A Profound Love Letter To James Baldwin, Harlem And The Enduring Power Of Black Community

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September 14th 2018

Overwhelmed with emotion after the TIFF world premiere of If Beale Street Could Talk, Brian Tyree Henry reacted candidly: “Black love is f*cking beautiful. Barry, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like that.” It’s true that the “Barry” mentioned, director Barry Jenkins, has a penchant for centering Black love in his films. But it’s the way he chooses to show this love on screen in particular that makes it an intimate experience. If Beale Street Could Talk deepens this calling card, using James Baldwin’s words as the foundation and Harlem as its home, making for a beautiful, slow burn of a film.

Based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Beale Street is narrated by Tish (Kiki Layne) Rivers, a 19-year old woman who falls in love with her childhood friend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). When Fonny is wrongly-convicted of sexual assault and sent to prison, both their families are devastated. While Fonny’s away, Tish discovers she is pregnant, spurring her to prove his innocence so they can both provide for their child. Through Tish’s recounts of their relationship and these events, we see their young love progress.

Baldwin’s words are always poignant, bold, and sometimes grandiose. So it only makes sense that you’d need a cast that matches it -- the people Jenkins assembled for this film do. Those who may be weary of the material accurately capturing the spirit of the author can breathe easier, knowing that it’s a proper homage. As Fonny, Stephan James finally gets the star role that’s worthy of his talent. His vulnerability and simmering frustration make you fall in love with him, just like Tish does. Beale Street simply could not work if his and Tish’s chemistry wasn’t believable. Thankfully, it is. From the way their eyes soften when they look at each other, to the way they refer to each other as “husband” and “wife”, their love is the heart of this film.  As Sharon Rivers, Tish’s mother, Regina King is also captivating. This is especially true when we spend time with her alone as she searches for Fonny’s accuser. And while she has limited screen time, Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister Ernestine is a delight, delivering one of the best draggings in the entire film.

The film wouldn’t be an adaption of Baldwin’s work without racial commentary and Beale Street delivers the goods. What could be considered the most important discussion occurs midway in the film between Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). Their conversation begins with Daniel sharing that he was recently released from jail, moving on to Fonny and Tish’s struggles to find an apartment as a Black couple. Between these two topics, they manage to touch on multiple points about America’s lack of respect for Black people, the unfair prison system, and the mentally scarring effects of incarceration. How the conversation flows feels so familiar and natural.

Beyond the script, how the scenes were shot truly reinforce the beauty of Blackness. Beale Street sees Jenkins resuming work with Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton. This reunion explains the emphasis on close face shots and direct eye contact to the camera; focusing on Fonny’s eyes and face, they help viewers drink in how beautiful he is, aesthetically and through Tish’s perspective. And just like Moonlight, the lighting on all this dark Black skin is impeccable and shouldn’t be taken for granted. A great example of this is Tish & Fonny’s love scene: the overhead shot and the warm glow of the light on their bodies illuminates them while keeping the shot sensual. These choices reinforce the notion that love is personal, intimate, and takes time. The crew doesn’t cut any corners when it comes to lighting and framing their talent, and in return we should appreciate.

Brian Tyree Henry’s sentiments, that “Black love is f*cking beautiful” resonates and its beauty is even more special when you consider that Black love stories that are empathetic in cinema aren’t common. Having the ability to tell this love story and take the time needed is such a gift,  If Beale Street Could Talk makes it known that this is a Black film about Black love set in Black America. To confidently set those parameters and follow it through to the end is something that would make Baldwin proud.

Rating: 4/5

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