For those not familiar with Baldwin’s novel, the story is set in early 1970s Harlem. Daughter and wife-to-be Tish (KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt (Stephen James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.
If Beale Street Could Talk proves that love is a revolutionary act, especially when told through the eyes of perhaps the most overlooked and maligned segment of America’s population: African-American women.
By centring the story firmly in Tish’s mind, empathy is easily attainable for even the most dispassionate moviegoer.
The story is told on two timelines, through Tish’s recollections and her present-day attempts to free Fonny from jail.
It is Tish’s quiet strength that propels the story, artfully framed and stylised by Jenkin’s particular cinematographic style.
Sometimes, Beale Street’s substance gets close to being overwhelmed by its style, but Tish is there to pull it back to the heart.
If Beale Street Could Talk: Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel is Oscar nominated
It is easy to look at If Beale Street Could Talk with a 21st-century state of mind.
Disbelief may lace your thoughts as Fonny and Tish are turned down again and again from renting an apartment in Manhattan.
But this was the reality, and still continues to be, for swathes of people both in America and elsewhere.
Then, in a what seems like both dumb luck and divine intervention, Fonny and Tish find a potential landlord in Levy (Dave Franco).
Fonny asks Levy, whose Jewishness is signified by his wearing a traditional Jewish skull-cap (a yarmulke or kippah), why he would rent to them and Levy says: “I dig people who love each other; black, white, green, purple, it doesn’t matter to me.
If Beale Street Could Talk: Barry Jenkins directs Kiki Layne, Stephan James and Dave Franco
“Just spread the love,” he adds, to which Fonnny asks if Levy is a hippie.
Levy pauses, then says: “I don’t know. I’m just my mother’s son. Sometimes that’s all that makes the difference between us and them.”
The interaction is only a few minutes long, but it, like the moments of familial pride, the gregariousness of friends, and whispered sweet nothings of romance, is also an act of love.
Love is not just ‘love’ but also justice, strength, solidarity, in the face of systemic and personal prejudice, racism, and xenophobia.
Love is Tish’s and Fonny’s fathers, Joseph Rivers and Frank Hunt (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach respectively), risking their liberty to afford Fonny’s lawyer.
If Beale Street Could Talk: Tish and her dad (Colman Domingo L) and mom Sharon (Regina King) and dad
Love is Tish’s mom, Sharon Rivers (Regina King), flying to Puerto Rico to search for the woman who accused Fonny in the first place (at a cop’s behest).
Love is the awakening of Fonny’s lawyer Hayward (Finn Wittrock) to the white supremacy that upholds the criminal justice system.
Love is Tish’s unending fight for what is right even when the odds are insurmountable.
If Beale Street Could Talk speaks devastating volumes in its characters, most of all in Tish, whose perseverance is not her defining trait, but one of many tiles in an ever-shifting prism which makes her character real.
Despite moments in which Jenkins’ hand can be felt heavily directing close-ups and weighty pauses, If Beale Street Could Talk is a film which, once seen, is never forgotten.
If Beale Street Could Talk is out in cinemas on February 8, 2019.