In a better world, If Beale Street Could Talk would be nothing more — and nothing less — than a beautiful love story, merely the sweetly sexy blossoming of passion between 19-year-old Tish (glorious newcomer KiKi Layne) and family friend Fonny (Stephan James), whom she grew up with. Fonny describes his regard for her like this: “Just remember that I belong to you.” Which is simply one of the most romantic things I’ve ever heard, and not only because it’s the utter opposite of the possessiveness with which men onscreen typically express desire and connection with a woman. In a better world, Beale Street would let us and The Movies have Fonny — a handsome, sensitive artist — as the straight-up, uncomplicated catch that he is.
We don’t live in that better world. Tish and Fonny are black, and they live in 1970s New York City. (Not that anything here would be much different if the film were set today. But the film is based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.) They face dehumanizing racism at every turn. The unreconstructed misogyny Tish faces from other women — Fonny’s religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters — when she announces that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child is another smack in her face, another reminder than she is seen as Less Than by too many people. If Fonny’s swoon-worthy declaration is the fantasy side of Beale Street, then the directive of Tish’s sibling (Teyonah Parris) to “unbow your head, sister” to look hostility in the face, unashamed and with pride, is the fist of this film.
It is a velvet fist, a fist of strength and dignity when confronted with injustice and outright hatred. It is a fist that Tish clenches only slowly, but out of necessity, when she is separated from Fonny after an accusation of rape, plainly fabricated by an NYPD beat cop (Ed Skrein), lands Fonny in jail awaiting trial. (There’s no mention of bail, as if that were so far down the ranking of racist barriers the American criminal justice system throws up against African-American suspects that it’s not even worth mentioning. Others will appear here.) Beale Street is all about Tish unbowing and unbending in a world where even expressions of kindness — such as that of the white Soho landlord (Dave Franco) who had no problem agreeing to rent a loft to the couple when no one else would — can be suspect.
Like director Barry Jenkins’s previous film, the luminous Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk is totally emotionally enrapturing, though the emotions here veer as much into sadness and rage as they do into love and hope. Nicholas Britell’s melancholy score and James Laxton’s mellow cinematography — both artists returning from Moonlight — underscore the sorrow of seeing such a gentle soul as Tish buffeted by harsh reality. This is a beautiful film about ugly things, told via delicate yet steely performances from the entire magnificent cast that imbue it with a power that is at once tender and infuriating as it asks us to contemplate the seeming impossibility of untangling the interwoven — and wholly manufactured — cruelty of the world.
‘Beale Street’ wrestles not only with racism but also with how men pit women against one another for men’s own purposes.
For in addition to the racism it challenges, the film also wrestles with how men pit women against one another for men’s own purposes. In a scene that is difficult to watch, Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), tries to convince the woman (Emily Rios) Fonny is accused of raping to testify on Fonny’s behalf about how she was coerced into identifying him as her attacker. (There is no doubt of Fonny’s complete innocence. His situation is a total frame-up by the racist cop, to whom Fonny was insufficiently deferential.) But the victim is so traumatized that she can barely speak, which in turn distresses Sharon... and us. There is no good or easy way out of this mess, not with the cards so consciously stacked against Fonny — and Tish — in deliberate malice.
And so we are left with the grace of Tish’s forbearance with what life has thrown at her and Fonny. And with our anger that such grace should be necessary.
Much more at FlickFilosopher.com on the web!