If 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 significantly.

            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.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association