2018 has been the year of the Black movie! From Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, and BlacKkKlansman, to Night School and Nobody’s Fool, there seems to a bit of everything thrown into the pot of big-screen pictures featuring Black characters and storylines. It seemed the only thing that was missing from this cinematic stew was a bona fide love story. This month, as we close out a phenomenal year for the Black film, we finally get the love story we’ve been patiently waiting for: If Beale Street Could Talk.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the latest movie by Oscar-Winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Jenkins won an Academy Award for 2016’s critically acclaimed Moonlight) and is based on prolific writer James Baldwin’s fifth novel of the same name. Baldwin penned Beale Street, a love story set in Harlem, New York, in the year 1974, but with his adaptation of the novel for the big screen, Jenkins accomplishes something pretty spectacular – he revisits Black history, taking us back to a time when racism and social injustice ruled the day, inadvertently highlighting what is still happening in present day. With this film, Jenkins offers not just a poignant love story, but a powerful look at those forces that have conspired throughout history to bring about the demise of Black love and the Black family.
As the movie opens we see 22-year-old Alonzo, or Fonny (played by Stephan James), and 19-year-old Clementine, or Tish (played by Kiki Layne), in a mutual state of love-induced bliss. James starred in 2014’s critically acclaimed Selma and gave a fine portrayal of Jesse Owens in 2016’s Race, and his experience on film creates a nice balance between him and his on-screen counterpart or love interest, newcomer Kiki Layne. These two actors do a great job embodying the feeling and physicality of two young people, young lovers who are on the verge of discovering something bold and beautiful. Through them, we get to experience what if feels like to be where they are – at the beginning of a love story with all the potential of a happy ending.
The storyline of Beale Street is not fast-paced and fluid. Rather, it is rich and savory, demanding time to digest. Fonny and Tish’s love doesn’t require words because their understanding of each other and connection to each other goes beyond what can be said. Nonetheless, in the opening scenes of the movie Tish asks Fonny, “Are you ready for this?” When Fonny replies, “I’ve never been so ready for anything in my whole life,” we are given a moment to celebrate the beauty that is Black love, the beauty of us.
However, that celebratory moment is very short-lived and ends all too quickly as the movie unfolds and the two are forced to navigate a world dominated by forces they are too young to fully understand, but that will shape and impact the course of their lives and leave an indelible mark on their precious love story.
Beale Street is as much about family as it is about love, and Jenkins takes time and care creating moments where we get to explore the intricacies and complicated dynamics within the Black family. We immediately fall in love with Tish’s family – her mother (played by Regina King), her father (played by Colman Domingo) and her sister (played by Teyonah Parris). Fonny’s family is not so “lovable” but they bring passion and fire to screen as an interesting contrast to Tish’s kin. Actress Aunjanue Ellis (from The Help, Birth of a Nation, and Notorious) has only one scene, but it’s a powerful one, and with it we come to learn a lot about our male protagonist, Fonny. Michael Beach (Soul Food, Waiting to Exhale and the just-released Aquaman) plays Fonny’s troubled father and actresses Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne offer strong performances as Fonny’s sisters.
Beale Street is packed with powerful moments that give you license to reflect and refocus by allowing the camera to linger on their faces in silence. Much like he did in Moonlight, Jenkins creates postcards of Black life with powerful stills that become etched into our psyches – Tish being held and consoled by her father; Fonny and Tish’s fathers coming together in a bar and brooding over their kids’ futures; Tish’s mother and father dancing and loving on each other in their meager living room; Fonny and Tish making love for the very first time; and in a masterclass in conveying fear, Fonny’s reunion with his longtime friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), just released from prison on a bogus auto theft charge, and the revelation he shares with Fonny about what he saw behind bars, “Man, this country really do not like n*ggers.”
Explorations of this nature, and this depth, are the bricks that James Baldwin used to build an extraordinary literary career with written works such as Beale Street, Another Country, and Go Tell It on the Mountain. In many ways, filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed this film adaptation of Baldwin’s work, has taken up that same torch and embraced that same mission. In order to accomplish something moving and memorable, Jenkins weaves together a mosaic of rich images and intimate conversations that work together to create a powerful statement about Black love, and Black life, and the forces that have historically conspired to destroy it.
Indeed, Beale Street is a love story, but it is colored by outside forces intent on destroying it. Those forces are still at work today, in 2018, and although the movie is beautiful, its larger purpose is to beckon us to examine ourselves as a society and as a nation. That examination and exploration is ugly and unpleasant, but in a time when we are still being murdered and the murderers are going free, when we disproportionately comprise the inhabitants of a prison system designed to re-enslave us, and a time where white people are emboldened by a president to spew hate messages and act out violently, Beale Street is a relevant story that is powerful in its retelling.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in theaters now.
Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures