Beale Street Could Talk
Writer James Baldwin is quoted at the beginning that every black
man born in America has a Beale Street experience.
Yes, it's about racism. But
not just from whites.
Sometime in the 1960's, somewhere in Harlem, a nineteen-year-old
girl, Tish (Kiki Layne) and a 25-year-old man, Fonny (Stephan James), fall
in love. She comes from an
intact family, and so does he. In
fact, the families have been friends for a long time; Tish has fond
memories of taking baths with Fonny (short for “Alfonzo”) when they
were small children. But they
find that their sibling-like feelings for each other have changed
Director Barry Jenkins sets the mood for a really sweet, unhurried
romance, rare these days in frantic, frenetic cinema.
The music is sublime, the close-up shots linger, and the silences
are so long that the pacing almost drags.
But we are really rooting for these young lovers, as they struggle
to afford an apartment. Eventually,
a yarmulke-wearing young man tells them he's renting to them because he
can tell they're in love, and he's all for love winning.
That's a shining moment.
Unfortunately, the bliss doesn't last long.
Fonny is accused of a rape he didn't commit, by a Puerto Rican
neighbor with three children whose husband just abandoned her.
Fonny is jailed by a white neighborhood cop with attitude, and
Fonny's hearing keeps getting postponed because the accuser, Victoria
(Emily Rios) has fled the area. Fonny's
devastated. But the still-supportive family, works extra hard (sometimes
on the edges of legality) to raise money for his Mom, Sharon (Regina
King), to fly to Puerto Rico herself to find Victoria, and try to convince
her how her false accusation is destroying the lives of innocent people.
She finally finds Victoria, but she's too devastated by her own
sense of loss to recant.
There's the burning issue. A
terrible injustice has been done, but nobody cares.
A black man is accused of a crime he says he didn't commit, and
nobody believes him. Finally,
Fonny gives up seeking justice and just accepts a plea bargain, despite
the injustice, which has to leave emotional scars.
His young son is growing up without him while he languishes in
prison. His beloved loyal Tish
is no longer the sweet innocent, either, because events beyond her control
have given her the same sharp edge that her parents have already acquired.
As if there weren't enough tension to go around, Fonny's mother is
one of those self-righteous Christians who condemns Tish for corrupting
her son. Wrapping herself in
the mantle of strict morality, she'd rather be self-righteous than kind.
And she's teaching her daughters to do the same, which isolates
Fonny even more.
Though this well-crafted movie is slow-paced, it's powerfully
impactful. The performces,
even from the secondary characters, are very strong, and so is the
message. All wrapped up in the
sweetest love story of the season.