TRCH Soundstage

Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

11 February 19 words: Hilary Whiteside

Barry Jenkins' story of racial injustice in 1970s New York is in cinemas now... 

Director: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King

Running time: 119 mins

If Beale Street Could Talk follows the path of two young lovers, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they attempt to forge a life together in 1970s New York. At the beginning of the film, they are engaged and they are optimistic. Fonny is pursuing a bohemian lifestyle as a modern sculptor and Tish appears content in her shop assistant job. Tish’s family are loving and supportive of the couple whose childhood friendship has blossomed into an adult romance. However, their security and hopes for the future are radically altered when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and Tish becomes pregnant. Their focus, and that of Tish’s family, switches to the well being of the baby and securing Fonny’s release. 

We open with the premise that Beale Street could be sited in any American city; novelist James Baldwin's cry for justice and equality for black people is a universal theme that is felt across the entire country. Baldwin raises a number of questions about integration into American society, which director Barry Jenkins clearly echoes throughout the film.

Historically, following the 1960s riots in Harlem, many black people were incarcerated, and Jenkins takes up this issue on screen with Fonny's wrongful imprisonment. He has been framed by a rather repugnant ‘bully boy’ cop who is sexually attracted to Tish, and who has been determined to exert his misplaced authority over Fonny. He makes sure that Fonny is wrongly identified by a Puerto Rican women, herself an immigrant who has also fallen foul of American law. She has lost the rights to her children, leaving her vulnerable and open to being coerced into making a false identification. The unjust persecution of non-white citizens is further alluded to through the character of Daniel (a school friend of Fonny’s), who reveals that he has spent two years in prison, forced to admit to a crime he did not commit. He settles on the sentence of stealing a car (although, ironically, he is unable to drive) in order to avoid a heavier penalty drugs sentence. In a sense this episode can be seen as a foreshadowing of Fonny’s plight.

Tish is not spared prejudice either. She has secured work at the perfume department of large store where she faces prejudice both from the white women who openly voice their objections to being served by a black woman, and by men who feel free to sexually objectify her. Tish has to endure all the indignity which this brings in order to keep her job. She has no voice.

The use of old black-and-white documentary footage sets the film firmly in context and adds a layer of gravitas to Jenkin’s message

Jenkins also challenges the 1970s American judicial system, highlighting the lack of representation available for black people and the reluctance of white lawyers to take on cases. Fonny’s lawyer is both white and college educated, apparently these two things being the only way to success according to Tish’s mother. However, this lawyer, too, is side lined, receiving approbation from his colleagues for having taken on the case of a black person. The appalling conditions of prisons at the time are also subtly referenced, as overcrowding and widespread abuse are witnessed by Fonny. He is clearly traumatised by his experience and verbalises this common dilemma for inmates.   

The title of Baldwin’s novel was inspired by a 1916 W.C. Handy blues song Beale Street Blues, and in a sense this is relevant. The sultry background music to the film is all about jazz and blues. It’s apposite, it’s atmospheric and it’s effective. In fact, the music score is especially good, particularly if you like this genre.

Jenkins uses a variety of cinematic techniques, some more effective than others. The preponderance of facial close ups, on occasions, seems overworked. The director recreates the 1970s Greenwich Village vibe, utilising native New Yorkers in his production team who were able to seek out still existing parks and streets for his set. One ‘rain scene’ location is particularly effective from this point of view, although this was perhaps over-stylised and in danger of becoming cliché, when at one point it seemed as if the actors could have broken into a dance number. A similar criticism could perhaps be made of the park scene too. Romantic maybe, but a tad unrealistic. The use of old black-and-white documentary footage sets the film firmly in context and adds a layer of gravitas to Jenkin’s message.

There is indeed much to recommend this film.  Its presentation is almost faultless, bar the occasional simpering and saccharine interludes. The actors segue into their roles with ease and the core message is clearly presented and does indeed bear much relevance in today’s American society.         

Did you know? The first trailer was released on August 2, 2018, which would have been the 94th birthday of novelist James Baldwin.

If Beale Street Could Talk is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 14 February

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