Around December 2018, my mom and I promised each other that as soon as our workloads settled down, we would make popcorn, bundle ourselves in blankets and watch Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” When “Beale Street” eventually left theaters, I got distracted by the other moving parts in my life and let this film take the back burner. In March 2020, the rising global pandemic fenced me and my family inside our house. While this necessary precaution radically shifted our lives, it also provided my mom and I with the opportunity to fulfill our promise and finally watch “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Barry Jenkins adapted the film from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. Set in the early 1970s, “Beale Street” centers on a young Black couple, Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), living in Harlem. Tish steers the nonlinear narrative, flashing between past and present as she recalls her and Fonny’s tender connection, which cultivated in childhood and blossomed when they became young adults. The promise of their future, however, becomes jeopardized when Fonny is arrested and falsely accused of raping a woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). While Fonny awaits trial in a correctional facility, Tish and her family devote themselves to clearing his name.
Jenkins closely translates the novel into film and demonstrates a commitment to preserving Baldwin’s prose and pathos, reconstructing novelistic conventions through voice-overs in his screenplay. The film also navigates tonal duality as a romance and a drama. Early in the film, Tish and Fonny sit opposite each other, separated by a glass divider in the correctional facility. She gently tells him that she is pregnant. Fonny glows with pure joy when Tish assures him that this news makes her happy. Their physical separation infuses tragedy into this beautiful, sincere scene. By revealing her pregnancy, Tish effectively starts the stopwatch and rouses an urgent undercurrent that guides the film’s pacing: she and her family must desperately work to prove Fonny’s innocence before his trial and their baby’s birth.
Jenkins enlists cinematographer James Laxton, reuniting a duo whose earlier collaborations crystallized into gems like “Medicine for Melancholy” and “Moonlight,” which earned the Academy Award for Best Picture. Their stylized, evocative filmmaking is on full display in “Beale Street.” Laxton guides a camera that loves its subjects as much as they love each other. The film envelops its audience through lyrical shots, often lingering on a character’s face, as if the film itself is mesmerized by their beauty. While these languid frames sometimes soften the brutal reality pressing against Fonny and Tish, they illustrate lucid portraits of humanity. In one notable scene, Tish’s mother Sharon (a forceful Regina King) stares into a mirror, debating whether she should wear a wig to meet Fonny’s accuser. King’s grounded performance conveys the gravity and urgency of her impending conversation through silence. While she contemplates her external appearance, the scene serves as a telescopic image of Sharon’s interiority.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” harks the power of love to inspire resilience. When Tish insists that she can provide an alibi, Fonny’s lawyer retorts, “Your testimony is worthless.” Undaunted, Tish and her family leave no stone unturned and pursue every possible avenue to prove Fonny’s innocence. While unflinching in its portrayal of the harsh realities facing Black people in the United States, the film is not defined by institutionalized racism. As Tish navigates an impossible obstacle course with an obscured finish line, her family kindles and rekindles her morale. She embraces her family’s unwavering support and imbues the same infallible encouragement to Fonny during their visits. In “Beale Street,” love stitches together a resilient community and becomes the salve to relieve fear and hopelessness.
“Beale Street” brings to life a vividly heartfelt story with clear roots in reality. The stunning cast grounds Jenkins’ artistry to create enduring emotional resonance. I made a mistake in letting this film collect dust on my watchlist. It is a privilege to hear “Beale Street” talk.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is currently available on Hulu.
“Streaming Diaries” articles are recommendations from Daily Cal staff members on underrated content available on streaming platforms.