IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, US, 2018. Starring Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Anjanue Ellis, Michael Beach, Teyonah Parris, Finn Whitrock, Ed Skrein, Diego Luna, Bryan Tyree Henry, Dave Franco. Directed by Barry Jenkins. 119 minutes. Rated MA (Strong coarse language).
Writer-director, Barry Jenkins, shot to international fame with his Oscar-winning film, Moonlight. He has followed the success with an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, set in 1974.
Baldwin noted that he was born in Beale Street in New Orleans. But, he adds, there is a Beale Street in every city, the African-American neighbourhood of the city. This story is set in the Beale Street equivalent in New York City. With his well-respected novel, Baldwin makes his Beale Street talk, eloquently, about the people who live there.
The screenplay demands that the audience pay careful attention as it moves from character to character, and backwards and forwards in time. It is something of a cinema jigsaw puzzle, directing its audience to the attention of one piece, then another, gradually putting them together, getting more understanding in the light of an adjacent piece, and a new look at a situation.
At the centre of the story is a young man and a young woman. Tish (a persuasive performance from Kiki Layne) is the young woman, 18 years old, beginning to tell us her story, of her love for Fonny (Stephan James) whom she has known since childhood. Later, there are glimpses back to this childhood and friendship. However, as she begins to tell the story, the audience seeing the happy couple together, her love for him, his devotion to her, there are some puzzles. He is giving himself up – to prison? Yes, we find out. He has been falsely accused of rape.
And, for Tish, she has to tell her family that she is pregnant. She lives in a warm family, a hard-working and devoted mother (Regina King in an award-nominated performance), a genial father, supportive sister. They toast the coming child. They also invite over Fonny’s family – and quite a different reception of the news, his rogue father joyful, his very prim and proper mother, filled with religious talk and attitudes, disapproving as do his sisters. Tension.
And so, the film goes back, the friendship with the two young people turning into love, a re-creation of what happened on the night, gradually revealed, step-by-step (but not in that order). What seems idyllic, the possibility of getting a loft for Fonny to do his sculptures, all thwarted with the arrest after Tish has been accosted in a supermarket, Fonny attacking the man, the hostile white policeman, told off by the friendly storekeeper, but wanting revenge.
And also, the film goes forward, Tish visiting Fonny in prison, his love, his being upset, the months of the pregnancy. The parents consult a white lawyer, an earnest young man who is warned off taking such a case. Money has to be found to pay for the lawyer – and the two fathers get into some stealing rackets.
The woman who is the victim of the rape and has identified Fonny in a lineup (and we realise that she has been pressurised to do this by the police) has fled to Puerto Rico. Tish’s mother makes the decision to go, tracks the woman down, deals with her protector, pleads for mercy, encounters the woman in the street, and a desperate interchange.
In a way, the narrative just stops. It means then that Baldwin, Barry Jenkins, are asking the audience to reflect on what they would like to happen, how Tish will bring up the baby with the support of her family and mother, what will happen to Fonny in jail…
In many ways, Beale Street could be more effective as the novel and the time taken to read it, perhaps, a theatrical piece. But, as a film, Beale Street talks and has much to say.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.