“If Beale Street Could Talkˮ (2018). Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Dave Franco, Finn Wittrock, Emily Rios, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Teyonah Parris, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Ed Skrein, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Pedro Pascal, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Kaden Byrd. Director: Barry Jenkins. Screenplay: Barry Jenkins. Book: James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk. Web site. Trailer.
Much goes on in a neighborhood that comes to define its character. It’s as if the community takes on a life and personality of its own, one that frequently persists and comes to distinguish the area in question, including its residents, often for generation after generation. It’s a phenomenon that essentially becomes a way of life for all concerned, a circumstance examined in the moving new screen drama, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
As the film opens, a cinematic epigraph references Beale Street in New Orleans, a place where writer James Baldwin, author of the book on which this picture is based, contends that every Black person born in America comes from, even those who don’t call the Big Easy home. Baldwin says there’s a version of Beale Street, the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and jazz, in every urban African-American neighborhood, a place from which the community at large has its collective roots. It’s a noisy place, one with an array of qualities, including the love of family and the ugliness of injustice. And it’s just such a place that provides the backdrop of this story, in this case the iteration found in New York City’s Harlem in the 1970s.
Nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since childhood. Having grown up as friends and playmates, they have since come to be lovers as they enter young adulthood. The connection between them is undeniable, as if they were destined to be together. And, for the most part, their bond is supported by their families, who have also been acquainted with one another for years. Tish’s parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), adore Fonny and are so pleased that their daughter and sibling has found such a genuinely good man to love. However, the Hunts don’t share that enthusiasm; while Fonny’s dad (and Joseph’s drinking buddy), Frank (Michael Beach), likes Tish, the same can’t be said for his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne). They look upon Tish with disparagement and condescension, a belief that she’s not good enough for their son and brother. And the gap between them is about to widen as Tish prepares to reveal some big news about herself and Fonny.
Tish’s big announcement is that she’s carrying Fonny’s child, a revelation that utterly appalls Mrs. Hunt. As a self-proclaimed (supposedly) good Christian woman, she’s revolted by the news, especially given that Tish and Fonny aren’t married. She berates the mother of her grandchild for her “sin,” even going so far as to say that she hopes the child is never born. But her scorn doesn’t stop there; she also chastises Tish for being the source of all the trouble that has befallen Fonny of late, including blaming her for his incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish and her family know that Fonny has been wrongly jailed, and they’re working tirelessly to help secure his release with the assistance of a lawyer (Finn Wittrock) seeking to overturn the erroneous racially motivated charges. But, as these circumstances quickly reveal, the only meaningful help Tish and her family will get from the Hunts will come from Frank, who angrily lashes out at his wife’s tactless and hypocritical behavior.
Faced with the prospect of having to raise a child as a single mother, at least for now, Tish does her best to carry on. She continues to work at her job as a cosmetics salesgirl in an upscale department store to earn money to cover living expenses and legal bills. She regularly visits Fonny in jail in an attempt to lift his spirits while he awaits trial. And she and her family routinely meet with Fonny’s lawyer to coordinate strategy on how to get his case thrown out. It’s a full plate for someone who has a new life steadily – and rather actively – growing inside her.
Despite hopes for the best, it gradually becomes apparent that securing Fonny’s release may be more difficult than thought. His alibi is likely to be looked upon as suspect, given that it involved spending time in the company of his old friend, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), who had himself just been released from prison. To complicate matters, the arresting officer (Ed Skrein) turns out to be someone with whom Fonny had had a previous (and rather contentious) encounter, one that clearly revealed his obvious racial prejudice. And, on top of all that, the victim who made the accusations (Emily Rios) – which included serious charges involving rape and other depraved atrocities – has fled New York, disappearing to her native Puerto Rico. With these elements working against Tish and Fonny, the prospects of his release before the birth of his child – and possibly even at all – grow progressively dim. Sadly, even the love that runs through their families and permeates the version of Beale Street where they grew up and live may not be enough to overcome the injustice that also resides there. One can only hope that it’s enough to sustain all concerned as they work through their respective trials and tribulations and look forward to the hope of a brighter future.
The rollercoaster of emotions that is “Beale Street” examines what it means to address both life’s joys and its challenges. Through its depiction of the love of a family, it shows what makes life worth living. At the same time, though, it also shines a bright light on the ugliness and unfairness that can unduly unravel the happiness we would all like to enjoy. But, perhaps most importantly, it aptly depicts the resilience of the human spirit to deal with such trying conditions, that the love that brings us into being can help to sustain us through our hardships and, one would hope, help us find a way to carry on and make the best of things. That’s certainly difficult for characters like Tish and Fonny, but, when one sees the depth of the bond that joins them, it’s obvious they’ll figure out a way to move forward, no matter what may befall them.
Carrying on under such circumstances can benefit tremendously from an outlook built on convictions that give the protagonists hope, a result that’s possible thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s unclear whether Tish, Fonny and their families are aware of this philosophy, but, based on how their story unfolds, it’s apparent that they know how to make use of it.
For example, the love that binds Tish and Fonny, as well as Tish’s parents and the members of her family, is truly palpable, an outcome that’s a direct outgrowth of their belief and faith in the concept. That’s important, too, given the strength it provides in helping them address their respective challenges. It enables them to face their fears and emboldens them with the mutual support they need to get by. Indeed, those are potent forces whose benefits should never be underestimated when it comes to the formation and establishment of our beliefs.
When this notion is applied on a wider scale, such as to an entire community that intentionally seeks to collectively hang tough in the face of adversity, we witness the power of co-creation come into being. And, considering what the principals here – and the residents of all the nation’s Beale Streets – are up against, employing this notion can prove invaluable.
Of course, if conscious creation can be used to manifest whatever we want, then one might legitimately ask, “Why would anyone use it to materialize the kinds of difficulties that the characters are experiencing here?” As I have written before, this contention has merit, but, as I’ve also stated, the reasons behind why we create what we create are highly individual matters, choices that we’re not meant to question given that they’re designed to fulfill personal purposes. But, that said, one might yet wonder, “What kinds of personal purposes could possibly be served by circumstances like these?”
In many cases, the challenges we manifest for ourselves are intended to address particular life lessons, even those that many of us would consider essentially negative. Such situations, daunting though they may be, are part of our personal growth and development, providing us access to all aspects of life and what it means to be human.
In other instances, circumstances like those faced by Fonny – and many similarly situated peers, I might add – are often meant to draw attention to such plights, injustices in serious need of correction. A similar case can be made for the harsh, judgmental treatment that Mrs. Hunt inflicts upon Tish when she learns of her pregnancy, a proclamation that draws the ire of Sharon and Frank, both of whom don’t hesitate to make their feelings known about such a close-minded attitude. These “protest” manifestations are often difficult to endure, but, once the unfairness and hypocrisy associated with them are recognized, they frequently spur on much-needed reforms.
Creations that might cause us to scratch our heads thus do serve a purpose, but it requires us to look beneath the surface and examine the beliefs that brought these materializations into being. Once we understand the reasoning, we might well look at these situations in an entirely new light, one that fundamentally changes prevailing opinions. And that’s where the impact of co-creation comes back into play, particularly when it’s fueled by beliefs driven by noble sentiments, the power of love and the strength of the collective. With such conditions in force, it might be possible to change the nature of the neighborhood – and make Beale Street an even better place to live.
In making the first James Baldwin novel ever to be adapted for the big screen in the author’s native voice, writer/director Barry Jenkins has undertaken quite a task with this venture. That’s quite a tall order, too, given that it’s coming on the heels of the filmmaker’s much acclaimed Oscar-winning masterpiece “Moonlight” (2016), itself a formidable accomplishment. And, in many regards, this offering shines on many levels, coming close to matching its lavishly praised predecessor. With fine performances, beautiful cinematography, genuinely evocative emotion, a sumptuous background score and a skillfully crafted ambiance, “If Beale Street Could Talk” effectively draws viewers into the world of 1970s Harlem, one characterized by a mix of heartfelt love and ugly injustice. However, despite its many attributes, the film is somewhat bogged down by excessively lingering imagery and protracted dialogue that both go on a little too long, needlessly slowing the narrative’s pace. Some of that comes with the territory in a picture that’s driven more by character development than plot, but what’s presented here still could have used some tightening up. What’s more, in an attempt to avoid being too heavy-handed, the director at times uses a little too much restraint in his storytelling, keeping the picture from having an impact that isn’t as viscerally potent as it could (and should) have been. In all, Jenkins’s offering is a fine effort in many respects, though one that I wish could have been a little better. But, then, considering what Jenkins had to live up to, that would have been quite the challenge for any filmmaker.
Nevertheless, “If Beale Street Could Talk” has been wowing critics and earning numerous accolades in this year’s awards competitions. The picture earned three Golden Globe Award nominations for best dramatic picture, screenplay and King’s supporting actress performance, an honor for which she came up the winner. These accolades came on top of those presented by the National Board of Review, which named the picture one of the year’s top 10 films and bestowed it with awards for best adapted screenplay and King’s portrayal. In upcoming contests, the film is vying for five Critics Choice Awards, including best picture, screenplay, score and cinematography, as well as King’s supporting performance. In addition, the picture is up for best feature, director and supporting actress in the Independent Spirit Awards competition.
As trite or sentimental as it might seem, the belief that “love will find a way” often turns out to ring true more than not. It’s difficult to see the veracity of this when things get tough, but, when we come through our turmoil and look back on how we turned matters around, we frequently find that this intangible force is what usually gets us back on our feet. If we have faith in it and adhere to our convictions, we just might find that our ordeals can turn around more quickly and smoothly than we thought possible. When faced with significant difficulties, it could be all we have to draw upon. And, if that happens, why not give it a chance? After all, what do we have to lose? If we successfully draw upon it and manage to reverse our circumstances, that would certainly give us – and our own version of Beale Street – a lot to talk about.
Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.