IT’S A STORY of sweet, innocent love brought down by systemic racism and judicial corruption. In the bigoted US, hate easily defeats love and at the end of Barry Jenkins’s very tender, moving (if unduly leisurely) adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, you’re torn between tears and tearing things down.
The book (and the movie) shows us a world circa 1974. After forty years and a Black President, precious little has changed; with Trump in power, things have moved backward, hate has risen and guilty of living while Black is an even more entrenched ‘crime’
Tish (Kiki Lane in her first major movie role) and Fonny (Stephan James: Selma) have known each other since childhood. They live in a bubble of each other’s love with a chemistry between the two actors that feels authentic and heartfelt. Fonny is a craftsman in wood (He can’t bring himself to be called an artist) and like all artists, he must create something out of nothing…a life, a family, a future. Like the empty loft space they plan to rent, they must both imagine the walls, imagine the furniture, imagine the home for their family idyll.
What they couldn’t imagine is that Fonny would get Liam Neeson-ed (the need to find any Black man guilty for an individual Black man’s crime) by a racist cop (Ed Skrein: Deadpool) and sent down just as Tish becomes pregnant with his child.
Jenkins (Moonlight) tells his story through a series of flash backs, alternating between the innocent sweetness of their naive love and the terrible tragedy of a system stacked against the likes of a young Black man who’d pissed off a cop. He intercuts the story with actual news photos of Black men being beaten up, harassed and chain-ganged. It’s a means of paralleling the actual with its fiction, the facelessness of institutionalised racism with the more moving reality of people we get to know.
This of course was Baldwin’s brilliance: his ability to make tangible the Black experience through seducing us into their lives, not as political exemplars, but as real people.
And here’s my problem with this film. Though Jenkins’ directing impressively brings the audience very up-close with his characters, as though we’re there in the room with them, only the mother (a wonderful Regina King) and the father (Colman Domingo: The Butler) feel real.
Tish and Fonny are bland, cutesy lovers who never rise above an idea, above their thematic intent. Jenkins’ use of newsreel ups the anger. But it’s also a cop out…as though he lacked the self-confidence of his (or Baldwin’s) creations to illustrate the idea and the anger driving the story. They’re a charming couple, but they feel inauthentic; the story offers us no pathways to their inner lives, to the ways circumstances are shaping their world-views. They remain mere figureheads in service of a polemic.
Of course as our coarsened world regresses, any popular entertainment, from Black Panther to Get Out to …Beal Street, that celebrates that Black lives do matter, is worth celebrating. There was a time not long ago when it was anathema to show Black people kissing on the screen. In …Beal Street, they’re actually screwing (clumsily, awkwardly).
Progress I suppose
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Dir/Writer: Barry Jenkins (from the book by James Baldwin). With: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo. Cinematographer: James Laxton (Moonlight). Production designer: Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)