It was like watching poetry.
I am so old. I went to see If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) at 9:10 p.m. and my eyes were genuinely starting to close during the coming attractions. They started to close even more after seeing the trailer for the Cole Sprouse The Fault in Our Stars (2014) rip-off, Five Feet Apart (2019). The only way I will go to see Five Feet Apart is if a close friend agrees to go with me, and we get very drunk beforehand. But enough about an upcoming romantic comedy. If Beale Street Could Talk is a current and timeless drama that I would say is the most poetic movie of 2018. By the way, don’t get drunk before watching this. The sheer beauty of this movie deserves your undivided attention.
Based on the novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk centres on the love story of a young black couple, Tish and Fonny, set in 1970s Harlem. Told in a non-linear fashion, the movie chronicles the ups and downs of their relationship including the joy of expecting their first child together, to the despair of Fonny being accused of a crime he didn’t commit and being sent to jail.
The movie begins and the opening scene is of a well-dressed gorgeous couple on a stunning fall day, looking into each other’s eyes as sweeping violin music plays in the background. Immediately I knew that I was in store for two hours of beautifully-made cinema. Not surprising considering that director Barry Jenkins crafted the Academy Award-winning hit Moonlight (2016), a film renowned for its delicate craftsmanship. That same type of craftsmanship is on full display here as Jenkins creates a movie that is living art. From the cinematography, to the set design, to the use of music, If Beale Street Could Talk grabs you by the hand and envelops you in its warm and inviting atmosphere. Not only is the movie visually warm and inviting, but so is the family it centres on, the Rivers, Tish’s parents and sister. I wanted the Rivers family to adopt me. From the strong father who was understanding of his 19-year-old daughter’s pregnancy, to the brash and outspoken sister who tells the shameful Tish, “un-bow your head sister,” to the mother being played by the always enjoyable Regina King, I was living for this family. Especially Tish’s sister Ernestine. Trust me, she’s the best.
For her performance as Sharon Rivers, Regina King was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, a factor that heavily influenced my decision to see this movie. I love Regina King. I think she’s a truly gifted actress and whether she’s doing comedy or drama, endows each of her characters with a sense of realism that makes them all the more enjoyable to watch. Also, she’s clearly a witch because she has not aged since A Cinderella Story (2004). In If Beale Street Could Talk King’s talent and grace are on full display as she delivers a truly heartfelt performance that will have directors begging her to be in their next project. However, as wonderful as she was, and believe me, she was, I don’t think her performance was Academy-Award-worthy. First of all, King is hardly in the movie. That doesn’t always mean anything when it comes to who gets nominated, but I was expecting a majority of this movie to be about Tish’s relationship with her mother as she navigates an incredibly difficult time in her life. The movie touches on that but can never go all the way as King is literally in only four scenes. More than anything though, I was really disappointed that King did not get to have her, what I call, “Taraji P. Henson Moment.” Let me explain.
Remember in Hidden Figures (2016) when Taraji P. Henson delivered that incredible monologue about how her character had to walk to another building to use the bathroom? I still regard it as one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen and believe it should have earned Henson a nomination for Best Actress. Sadly, that wasn’t the case but whenever I watch a movie that is considered to be an awards contender, I look for the Taraji P. Henson Moment. The intensity of that moment demands a certain emotional weight, one that any Oscar winner should be able to deliver, and any Oscar voter shouldn’t be able to ignore. King is still an amazing actress whose range knows no bounds, but I was hoping to have more fire from her otherwise flawless character.
Stephan James however, the actor who plays Fonny, undoubtedly deserved an Oscar nomination either for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor. James conveys Fonny’s inner turmoil and complexities with the spark of electricity you normally only get from watching actors perform on stage. He plays off Kiki Layne, who plays Tish, perfectly, one moment portraying the comedy and heart that makes for the ultimate romantic lead, then transitioning into the anguish and frustration that can only come from being falsely accused at the hands of a broken system ingrained with racism. James is spectacular but he’s at his best when he acts opposite Layne. The many, MANY scenes that depict the two falling in love are pure poetry to watch. It’s amazing what a director can pull out of a pair of actors when dialogue is eliminated and the two rely solely on their bodies to tell the story of their relationship. Acting-wise Layne and James compliment each other flawlessly, and I hope that like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence or Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, they continually get cast opposite each other. If so, magic is sure to follow.
As gorgeous as If Beale Street Could Talk was, it wasn’t without its problems. I wasn’t a huge fan of the non-linear fashion in which the story was told. I find that it slowed the momentum of the story and undercut powerful moments. For example, the tense scene of Tish telling Fonny’s parents that she is pregnant is stalled by a sudden flashback to the two of them having dinner. The abundance of flashbacks, many of which were long, uninterrupted speeches, coupled with the lack of action, hinder the movie. The pace is rather slow-moving and at times it can be hard to stay focused. Which is unfortunate because this is a movie that is so well-made and demands your full attention. As well-written as the dialogue was, I feel like a few scenes of action to break it up would have made the movie run much smoother.
My criticism aside, If Beale Street Could Talk is a faithful adaptation of a beloved story that translates well to the big screen. Although, now that I think about it, the story would be just as well-told as a play or even a mini-series. As long as this cast is used for every adaptation because this cast was a dream to watch work together. If you’re looking to see a moving love story about the importance of enduring through tough times, I can’t recommend If Beale Street Could Talk enough.
Have you seen If Beale Street Could Talk? What did you think?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!