Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins (based on the novel by James Baldwin)
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry
Running time 1 hour and 59 minutes
MPAA rating : R for language and some sexual content
by Emmi Kurowski
There is a certain kind of film that I get very possessive over. It is MINE (it’s not). I’ll be honest, I enjoy love stories that hurt my lil heart. Not rom coms. No, no, that’s too sweet. I prefer movies that are more ambiguous, where you’re not assured that they will live “happily ever after”. I seek them out. I list ‘em endlessly. I own a museum of them, where I am the curator and could rate them in terms of how many broken hearts out of 10. Throw me in front of a Wong Kar-wai film and I’ll cry and write down quotes and commit *looks* to my memory. It’s just my thing, okay? If Beale Street Could Talk director, Barry Jenkins, (who I L-O-V-E, and who also loves MY Wong Kar-wai) is becoming a master at this style of film. Can I say “master” after seeing two of his films? Well, I’m gonna. Deal with it.
Truthfully, I haven’t seen this film in over two months. I saw it on a very rainy and cold Monday at TIFF, and although my memory tends to be utterly useless, this film really made an impact. Even thinking about it after all this time puts me in an actual mood. Yes, I fell for the gorgeous cinematography, vibrant autumn color palettes, period costumes and sets, and of course, music (side note: Barry Jenkins - please always work with Nicholas Britell. I could not shut up about this film score. I still can’t. I’m literally listening to it right now. People, there are times where it sounds like Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver!! Swooooooooooon.) It evoked a dreamlike feeling in me where I was kinda transported, like the best movie experiences do. But even without all of this, it would be something to see for the performances alone.
At its core, If Beale Street Could Talk (based on the novel by James Baldwin) is about a young woman, Tish (played by the incredible KiKi Layne), who is in love with her friend from childhood, Fonny (played by the also great Stephan James). It’s not a simple love story, sadly. It begins with an unexpected pregnancy that challenges the family ties of both individuals, but ultimately strengthens the bond between the pair. That is, until they are torn apart when Fonny is set up by a racist police officer and arrested for a crime he did not commit. This is 1970s Harlem and African-Americans are constantly targeted, regrettably, much like they still are today. I have no idea what it feels like to live through this kind of injustice. I don’t. To have my character judged by the color of my skin. I hate that we still very much live in a world like this. That’s why it’s so important stories like this are being told, and I’m so thankful that they are being told by talented individuals who do understand it.
This is a romance story on the surface, but like all great art, it has something much bigger to say as well.
You can tell Jenkins had a passion for bringing the words of James Baldwin’s novel to life. While most of the world seems to be working against Tish and Fonny, there are some bright spots in their lives. Tish’s mother in particular (played by the absolutely wonderful Regina King) goes to great lengths in order to stick up for her daughter and fight to clear Fonny’s name. But that doesn’t make life easy. Of all the characters we meet, I felt a connection to Tish the most. Her hands are tied. There is literally nothing she can do beyond being there for Fonny and keeping hope that the truth will come out and her life can go on like she wants. She just has to be patient.
Sometimes you have to wait years to get something you want. Maybe many years. Perhaps many many years… There ain’t nothin’ like good old-fashioned circumstances that can make you feel hopeless. But Tish taught me not to give up. I’m serious. Her character is a hero of mine now. She sticks up for who she loves. She can’t have everything she wants right when she wants it. But she is absolutely determined to get there, to make it to that point, and does all she can to enjoy the moments she is able to have with Fonny in the meantime. One scene that really stuck with me was one of the occasions she visited Fonny in prison. He had been beat up. He is dismissive of her feelings about it, saying that she doesn’t know what it’s like to be there, to go through what he has experienced. Tish replies, “I understand what you are going through because I am *with* you.” And right there, ughhhh. How do I not go on and on about everything this one line means to me? Was Tish physically there in prison with Fonny? Nah. Of course not. You can’t always be “with” someone you love. It’s not always that simple. I believe that when you truly love somebody, when they hurt, you feel it too. It makes no difference where they are. They could be confined like Fonny, or across the planet, or in space, and it doesn’t really matter. You are with them, even when you’re not, and you understand, because you feel it in your heart too.
Barry Jenkins understands body language. Maybe this is just my memory, but I seemed to find the scenes with no words at all said more. I was also feeling a lot of things when I watched this. Because sometimes you can’t say what you wish you could. For instance, the scene where Tish is trying to tell her mom that she’s pregnant. You just knowwww what she’s going to say. You know, Tish knows, her mom knows. The looks say it all. Or scenes where Tish and Fonny are just being together. Not speaking. We don’t need words. We can see it. While some filmmakers would go the route of having the characters always spelling out how they are feeling, Barry (I sometimes pretend he is my close personal friend) knows his audience doesn’t always need to be told. We can discern it - feel it.
I cannot wait to see this film again. I cannot wait to physically own it. To add it to my earnestly curated museum. To revisit it over the years. To spend time with these characters. To see how things change. Because, who knows, you know? Who knows. Yeah, the world is a mess. But there will always be something to hope for.