If Beale Street Could Talk
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
Stars: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Joseph Rivers, Ernestine Rivers
Writer/Director: Barry Jenkins
By all rights, the story of a passionately devoted Harlem couple torn apart by racism and hatred should leave its audience stupefied with despair. But in his triumphant screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1973 novel, visionary writer/director Barry Jenkins harnesses Baldwin’s ear for the poetry of everyday life to create a film that miraculously manages to be an affirmation of the human spirit.
Tish (radiant Kiki Layne) and Fonny (heartbreakingly sad-eyed Stephan James) are in love, and gloriously so. But Fonny is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman and imprisoned — just as Tish discovers she’s pregnant.
The film traces Tish’s frantic race against the clock to prove Fonny’s innocence before he can be indicted — in the torturous legal maze of 1970s New York City, indictment itself becomes a years-long prison sentence for poor minorities who must remain incarcerated until their trials.
Layer by painful layer, Tish’s hopes are cruelly peeled away until there’s no hope left. But even after hope is gone, love and commitment survive — not just between the lovers, but between Tish and her family, and among the members of their community.
Beyond the endlessly appealing lead couple, Beale Street’s ensemble is uniformly perfect. As Tish’s mom, Regina King embodies fierce, unstoppable determination — until her heart-stopping encounter with the woman who has misidentified Fonny as her attacker. At that moment, realizing the hopelessness of both their situations, King seems to physically shrink in surrender to a world that has no use for either of them.
Baldwin and Jenkins offer no unreasonably happy ending. In a narrative sense, the conclusion of Beale Street isn’t even in the same universe as happy.
And yet, we can’t help but be heartened by the love these characters hold for each other. They live in a crappy world, but at least they all live in this crappy world together.
And at the final fade-out, there is at least the glimmer of hope that someday Tish and Fonny will actually find a happiness worthy of the joy they continue to give each other.
It’s a feel-good film that has no right to feel good at all.