By: Movie Snurb (A Toast) –
If Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel from the 70’s. It’s about Kiki and Alonzo (“Fonny”) and their relationship and struggle with Fonny’s wrongful arrest for a rape he didn’t commit. Kiki and her family are attempting to prove Fonny’s innocence all while Kiki is pregnant with Fonny’s child. The story is told cutting between the present and flashbacks of their relationship blossoming up until Fonny’s arrest. It is a brutally honest portrait of 1970s Harlem and what African American families were having to deal with during this time. However, it is also a beautiful film about the power of love and what it can do for someone’s spirit.
Barry Jenkins, what can I say about Barry Jenkins that I didn’t say in my review of Moonlight in 2016? His ability to tell honest human stories with such a tender touch is really unmatched in Hollywood today. His films feel honest and lived in rather than a caricature of 70s Harlem or modern-day Liberty City. I think Spike Lee is a good director, but sometimes I feel he can go over-the-top with some of his characters. Like in BlacKkKlansman (which I really liked): the wife in that film was so over-the-top racist that she didn’t feel genuine. Barry never seems to embellish his characters; they feel like they’re all based on real people, as if he knows and cares for each one of his characters individually. This care and passion comes through the screen in his films and what makes them so beautiful and relatable. I may be a white man from a Midwest town in Missouri, but his stories are told in such a way that I can relate with the characters and empathize with them, even if I’ll never fully understand what it feels like to go through what his characters do. That’s the sign of a brilliant storyteller.
His characters also come alive because he casts amazing actors in his roles. Tish Rivers as Kiki and Stephen James as Fonny give truly tender performances as young lovers just trying to figure out their world and relationship. Tish gave a very timid performance as Kiki which was amazing because I get the feeling that Tish isn’t like that at all, it takes a very skilled actor to be able to pull that off. It’s always a special performance when we get to watch an actor play someone who matures through the film and it’s played by the same actor. It’s a difficult task especially because these roles are usually for younger actors, which makes it all the more impressive when it’s done to perfection as it is here with Kiki. Alonzo is also played brilliantly by Stephen James. Fonny is more mature, but his chemistry with Kiki is almost unmatched on screen. You can see they’re meant to be together; their relationship never feels awkward or forced. Though Alonzo his older and more mature than Kiki, it never feels like he’s taking advantage of her. He has a love for Kiki and Stephen play this perfectly. It could’ve been easy for Alonzo to come off as creepy or controlling, but it never does; they feel like a real team.
What can I say about Regina King’s performance? I hate to keep comparing this film to Moonlight, but her role as Kiki’s mother Sharon is the heart and soul of this film, just as Mahershala’s role as Juan was the heart of Moonlight. Her understanding and wisdom with her daughter, Alonzo, and their relationship is what every child hopes their parents would be like. She has an unconditional love of anyone in her family and the loved ones of her family. She would go to the ends of the earth for any of them and never holds it over their heads. Regina may not be in the movie a long time, but her presence is felt throughout the whole film.
I also want to give a special shout-out to Brian Tyree Henry’s sole scene in the film, but it is a powerful scene. His ability to go between truly funny and compassionate to absolutely terrifying is amazing to watch. He plays Daniel, a good friend of Alonzo’s, and they have dinner together. Daniel begins to talk about his arrest for “stealing a car” which he says he didn’t do, but he did have weed on him, so he took a plea deal for stealing the car because it sounded better than a Marijuana charge. He did two years and he doesn’t need to go into detail about his time in prison to communicate that it is a horrifying place to be and no one ever wants to go. It’s another small performance that has a lasting effect.
The cinematography is outstanding in this film; in the aforementioned scene I love the camera ork. We cut back and forth between Daniel and Alonzo while they crack jokes, not panning but a cut from Alonzo to Daniel as they enjoy their jokes and each other’s company. But when Daniel gets real about his arrest and time in prison the camera stops the cuts and pans from Alonzo to Daniel. It then focuses on Daniel as he gets very real about his time in prison. It is a small detail, but has a truly haunting effect. Also, Barry Jenkins and James Laxton’s ability to shoot those medium close-ups on people’s faces is a thing of beauty that we haven’t seen since Wong Kar-Wai and Johnathan Demme. Jenkins’ uses of color in the lighting and costumes give a beautiful and vibrant feel to the film.
This is getting long, so the last thing I loved about this film was the score. Nicholas Britell is able to compose such beautiful and deeply moving music that you can put it on anytime and be affected, not just when it is on screen. Britell and Jenkins have a brilliant partnership as good as Spielberg and Williams.
Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight does not disappoint. It’s a deeply affecting story about the power of love and helps people to understand what African-American families were struggling through and continue to struggle through. It has an honest yet beautiful ending that should be seen by everyone. I don’t know how it lost to Bohemian Rhapsody at the Globes for Best Drama, and I’m not going to get over it for a long time.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: every time the film does a flashback.
Take a Drink: every time Kiki visits Fonny in jail.
Take a Drink: for every medium close-up on someone’s face.
Do a Shot: to help digest that honest but tender ending.