• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:February 20, 2021

If Beale Street Could Talk: Humanizing the Black Man


Moonlight winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2017 was quite the upset, not only because the wrong movie was first named during the live ceremony. Like virtually every other young filmmaker, Barry Jenkins had a tough start before finding success; after making the independent feature Medicine for Melancholy in 2008, he spent the following years writing scripts and working as a carpenter. The success of Moonlight seemed to herald a new era for Hollywood, one that finally noticed people of color and their stories. Following up on a monumental critical success like that was always going to be hard. But Jenkins had it in him.

Told in non-linear fashion
Harlem, New York City, the early 1970s. We meet a young couple, Clementine ”Tish” Rivers and Alonzo ”Fonny” Hunt (KiKi Layne, Stephan James) who have fallen in love. The story is told in non-linear fashion and in the beginning we understand that Fonny is in prison, accused of having raped a woman. He claims to be innocent and there isn’t anyone in his or Tish’s families who believe otherwise. In fact, the woman accusing him turns out to be hard to find after Fonny’s incarceration; she never did get a good look at her rapist, but still identified Fonny in a lineup.

The Rivers family do everything to help Tish and her boyfriend; when they learn that Fonny’s accuser is likely in Puerto Rico, Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) decides to track the woman down and try to make her change her testimony.

Always judged by the color of their skin
When Barry Jenkins was working on the script for Moonlight in the early 2010s, he was also trying to adapt ”If Beale Street Could Talk”, a 1974 novel by James Baldwin that served as an attempt to show white America that African-American men were also human beings. Sometimes we need to be reminded that even if certain institutions or politicians (particularly men like Donald Trump) choose to show minorities in a primarily negative light, it’s a cliché hiding the fact that some people will always be judged by the color of their skin. Tish and Fonny are young, beautiful people who would be treated with nothing but respect if they were white, but in this story they are even denied somewhere to live by every landlord in the city – the rape case also turns out to depend on circumstances out of the couple’s control, revealed later in the film.

That’s 1970s America for you, portrayed by Baldwin, a gay, Black man who certainly knew from experience what kind of society he was talking about. The story’s non-linear structure in the film serves it very well, presenting the rape case as a minor mystery waiting to be solved later in the film, while we get to know the young couple and their families in flashbacks. The romance is beautiful and touching, thanks to Jenkins’s delicate touch, Layne and James’s natural performances and Nicholas Britell’s highly memorable music score; there’s an effective, haunting love theme on the soundtrack that the filmmakers emphasize at every opportunity they can find. It’s fun getting to know the families, especially in that volatile scene where Tish’s pregnancy is announced; the husbands (Colman Domingo, Michael Beach) have an amusing understanding that they share, while Aunjanue Ellis is superb as the headstrong mother of Fonny who’s religious in the most negative sense of the word.

We also have Regina King who made quite an impact during awards season as Tish’s mother who does everything in her power to clear the name of her son-in-law.

Both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk present varied and very compelling and intelligent portraits of the male African-American experience. We need more of this.

If Beale Street Could Talk 2018-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Megan Ellison, Dede Gardner, Barry Jenkins, Jeremy Kleiner, Sara Murphy. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Novel: James Baldwin. Music: Nicholas Britell. Cast: KiKi Layne (Clementine ”Tish” Rivers), Stephan James (Alonzo ”Fonny” Hunt), Regina King (Sharon Rivers), Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry… Diego Luna, Dave Franco.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Brad Pitt.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (King). Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (King).

Last word: “The energy of James Baldwin, the way he writes – especially in this book – the detail with which he writes, was the primary source of inspiration. And then, the film is not a documentary, but we wanted to find references that really have fidelity to the experience of Harlem in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. We found that mostly in still photography and work by Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks. So it was a blend of the lushness of Mr. Baldwin’s literal syntax, the way he constructs these sentences, and this beautiful photography of the period. It’s why the film is presented 2:1 as opposed to the more common aspect ratios of 1.85 or 2.35.” (Jenkins, Slashfilm)



What do you think?

0 / 5. Vote count: 0

Got something to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.