Having one’s finger on the pulse of a nation, or even a large segment of it, is a difficult task and can be even harder to comprehensibly articulate. From the ‘50s to the ‘70s, James Baldwin’s prolific writing and countless television appearances were expressing the plight of black America in a manner that was gaining increasing attention. He likely hoped by this time his work would be a snapshot of a former country and its hardships, but unfortunately it is as relevant now as it was then. Adapted from Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is a passionate love story interrupted by a gross injustice.
Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since they were children, but at some point they became more than just friends, discovering a deep and enduring love for each other. However, before they even have a chance to begin their new life together, Fonny is accused of raping a woman on the other side of town. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he’s charged with the crime and forced to sit in prison without trial. While he sits in jail, Tish, her family and Fonny’s father work to prove his innocence before he becomes another victim of the system.
This is a rare period romance that centres on a black couple in a realistic setting. In Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins demonstrated how much he loves love and he does it again here by capturing its beauty and pain in ways that are both human and artistic. When Tish and Fonny are together, the colours are warm and inviting; conversely, encounters with the police or at the correctional facility are cold and intimidating. The camera also spends a lot of time tightly focused on the characters since they are the heart of the movie. Even during particularly difficult moments, slow jazz fills already loaded silences with emotion as it did in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Baldwin was a poet, activist and novelist, and his voice is still plainly present in Tish’s eloquent voiceovers. Jenkins was clearly not interested in watering down this narrative in any way, wanting to bring these issues of racial profiling and false imprisonment to the forefront in a manner that is powerful, poignant and allows the audience to connect with these passionate characters. In this context, he also committed to casting dark-skinned actors to portray the couple and their families so the core group would be representative.
The narrative unfolds without judgement, while also not trying to mask the hardships, sacrifices and wrongdoings that are inherent to their lives. However, it also makes the point that just because someone breaks some of the rules some of the time, it doesn’t mean they’re always guilty — particularly of more serious crimes — nor is everyone with whom they’ve ever associated. The film is unrushed, often making poetry in motion, as viewers are meant to spend time with these people to better understand where they’re coming from, creating a subtle yet striking statement that resonates long after the credits.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced” James Baldwin pic.twitter.com/Fym1uEjCDZ
— COMMON (@common) December 13, 2018