IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: Thematically Complex, Beautifully Shot, Impressively Acted - Film Inquiry (2023)

Expectations were high for Barry Jenkins’ third feature and follow up to his critically acclaimed Best Picture winner Moonlight. With If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has again shown himself to be a filmmaker committed to character, performance, aesthetic cohesion, and layered explorations of varied themes.

Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk follows a young African-American woman, Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) who is desperate to clear the name of her partner, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephen James), who has been falsely accused of rape, before the birth of their child.

Beale Street depicts a love story with both historicity and universality. Timeless themes of trauma, sin, justice, love, hope, and guilt permeate the film, and are treated with the reverence of a play or poem; every scene is shot, directed, designed, and costumed to a level of cohesion that feels staged and deliberate in the best way. Every triumph and setback experienced by Tish and Fonny feels impactful, symbolic, and is given emotional weight, and more importantly earns this emotional weight through an unwavering commitment to the characters’ experiences, emotions, and the actors’ performances.

The film balances the universality of its themes and the romance and poetry present in the languid pace and cinematographic choices that makes the film feel like a fairytale, while also grounding itself in a specific setting in American history, without becoming a pretentious or trite period piece.

(Video) If Beale Street Could Talk, Ballad of Buster Scruggs join 2018 New York Film Festival lineup

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Beale Street’s leads carry the film beautifully. Kiki Layne, with her halo of natural hair, soft voice, and expressive eyes, is sweet and strong-willed even in her moments of sensitivity and naïveté. Stephen James also gives a beautiful performance as Alonzo, known throughout as “Fonny,” succeeding in moments of strength, sensuality, frustration and sensitivity, a capable but emotionally varied craftsman, artist, maker and doer, eager to create a safe, happy future for his new family. These characters are complex despite their overwhelming youthfulness, and the couples’ chemistry and vibrance absolutely sings in every scene.

Beale Street is a balancing act; between universality and historicity, fairytales and realism. It makes no simple choices but rather layers its themes and choices, encouraging exploration rather than simple conclusions. Gorgeous aesthetic decisions amplify strong performances, which come together with technically impressive, emotionally effective results.

“I dig people who love each other.”:

On top of a strong emotional core provided by Layne and James, this film is full of strong performances in its supporting cast. There are no small parts – Brian Tyree Henry, Emily Rios, Pedro Pascal – everyone is allowed emotional complexity, often conveyed with very little screen time. Standouts are Colman Domingo as Tish’s father Joseph and Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon – in one of the most critically acclaimed performances of the year, King is restrained, desperately holding back signs of frustration and fear as she tries to instill hope in her daughter.

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Beale Street has sympathy for its characters that heightens what could have been a simpler story. There is sympathy for the woman who falsely accused Fonny but is nonetheless a woman dealing with sexual trauma, sympathy for Fonny’s brutally judgmental mother and sisters who are hateful out of frustration with Fonny’s squandered potential. Beale Street shows sympathy and respect to its women in particular, who are all shown to be navigating a difficult world in the best way they know how.

James Laxton’s cinematography relishes in the actors’ expressions, their emotions, and their beauty. Several scenes are peppered with what are essentially portraits, unwavering close-ups in which actors look into the camera, watching at the viewer with starling openness, daring us not to connect with them. Laxton also served as DP on Moonlight and is a long-time collaborator of Jenkins, and the two clearly have a filmic language that is devoted to this kind of connection, not only between characters but between actor and viewer.

Beale Street is in no rush – takes and scenes run long as the camera wanders from face to face in moments of conversation or watches characters patiently in their quiet contemplation. There is nothing to distract from the personal and interpersonal stakes; the emotional tone of every scene is the focus. Flashbacks are presented with a sense of respect for love, most importantly the rosy, glossy way it feels for the people in it, and the profound meaning a moment has for Fonny and Tish within the narrative of their lives. Something as simple as Tish and Fonny finding a loft, or Fonny reuniting with an old friend, is triumphant and joyful, filmed in a way that emits an unbelievable warmth; this film loves love, and loves its characters and its actors, and treats them with attentiveness, and thus wills the viewer to do the same.

“I’ll be home soon.”

Beale Street’s 1970s Harlem is one not overly inundated with period-specific references, one that largely keeps the film from veering into the territory of period pieces bogged down by their own historical aesthetics. Still, the costuming reflects the film’s desire for and grappling with romanticism, and color coordination of both costumes and sets adds to the fairytale, theatrical feeling present in many scenes; the first scene in which we see Fonny and Tish their outfits are charmingly coordinated, which sets the tone, visually, for the rest of the film.

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The use of music in the film coheres with the film’s nostalgic, dream-like feeling as well. Nicholas Britell, who also composed Moonlight’s gorgeous score, has created a score with notes of classical and jazz that conveys the bittersweet feeling of looking back on sweeter, simpler times, a feeling that, throughout the film, helps maintain Tish’s hope for the future. The soundtrack also avoids the overuse of period-specific songs; while there are period-specific pieces peppered throughout, they are used sparingly and in general diegetically.

One point in which the film does unfortunately become somewhat heavy handed is in its use of black and white historical photographs depicting poverty and police brutality in 1970s America, accompanied by Tish’s voiceover. The voiceover is a nearly unavoidable presence in literary adaptation, but the photos, presumably used to ground the film more firmly in a specific moment for racial injustice in the United States, feel redundant. The film is effective enough on its own in depicting the racial moment to not need these, albeit rare, primary sources.

Beale Street thankfully avoids dwelling on the specifics of the justice system and Fonny’s court proceedings, exploring just enough to give the film enough of a narrative arc, as well as time sensitivity; Tish is eager to secure Fonny’s release before the birth of their child, a goal that proves to be heartbreakingly impossible due to an ineffective justice system. Courtroom drama is not the dramatic center of the film, but the injustice of the criminal justice system both in the 1970s and today is neither overlooked nor overexplained, and contributes most to the film as an insurmountable obstacle to Tish and Fonny’s relationship as husband and wife, and their life as a family with their new child.

If Beale Street Could Talk: Conclusion

If Beale Street Could Talk is an ode to young love, a tragedy about injustice and social mores, a poetic depiction of the loss of innocence and naïveté inherent with maturation, and much more. It ends on an emotionally ambiguous but quietly hopeful note; love has been proven to endure, to manifest in the existence of a healthy baby boy. But the film also asks questions that cannot be answered, only contemplated: Why must Tish and Fonny’s love endure so much for them to simply survive and exist as a family?

Barry Jenkins has again displayed his attentiveness to every element of film – acting, costuming, set design, sound, cinematography, editing – all these elements relate to the themes he aims to explore, creating a truly cohesive, moving vision of a film. If Beale Street Could Talk is more evidence of the talent and dedication of Barry Jenkins and the artists with whom he continues to collaborate.

While Beale Street is technically a period piece, do its historical elements feel necessary, or could it be set in a contemporary time period and work just as effectively? Does the use of a historical time period enhance the themes or simply add an element of aesthetic interest?

If Beale Street Could Talk was released in the US on December 14th, 2018, and will be released in the UK on February 8. All international release dates are here.

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What is the central idea of If Beale Street could talk? ›

In If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin draws a connection between racism and fear, suggesting that bigots use intimidation tactics to suppress black people. Throughout the novel, he portrays fear as something that keeps young African Americans like Fonny and his friend Daniel from addressing their own oppression.

What is the origin and significance of Baldwin's title If Beale Street could talk? ›

If Beale Street Could Talk is a 1974 novel by American writer James Baldwin. His fifth novel (and 13th book overall), it is a love story set in Harlem in the early 1970s. The title is a reference to the 1916 W.C. Handy blues song "Beale Street Blues", named after Beale Street in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

What is the tone of If Beale Street could talk? ›

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is both a moving love story and a richly layered look at how the American criminal justice system works against black men. It is a fragile, melancholic romance that rejects the despondency of tragedy – a social critique that refuses to preach.

Why did James Baldwin wrote If Beale Street could talk? ›

Baldwin's intention was to hold these two storylines—of a couple falling in love and of a family facing adversity—together, to show that they were beautifully, terribly intertwined. Such was the condition of being black in America. But the message fell on deaf ears when Beale Street came out.

What does the end of If Beale Street Could Talk mean? ›

In her New York Times review of the book, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that at the end, "Fonny is out on bail, his trial postponed indefinitely, neither free nor imprisoned but at least returned to the world of the living." This is a more hopeful conclusion in that readers can choose to believe Fonny and Tish will get to ...

What happened at the end of If Beale Street Could Talk book? ›

Sharon tries to speak with her, acknowledging what happened to her was horrible but trying to explain that she has the wrong man. Victoria explains that the police asked her to pick Fonny out and she did and that that's the end.

Is the movie If Beale Street Could Talk based on a true story? ›

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is set in Harlem in the early 1970s. Reportedly inspired by Baldwin's own friends' experiences, it tells a story of a young couple Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) who were childhood friends that fell in love as young adults.

Who is the narrator of If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

The eighteen-year-old Tish is the narrator of Baldwin's novel. Through winding, nonlinear flashbacks, she tells us what has happened to her and Fonny. Growing up in Harlem, they were childhood friends.

Who are the main characters in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

If Beale Street Could Talk

WHEN WAS If Beale Street Could Talk published? ›

What is the significance of time for both Tish and fonny? ›

In many ways, Tish and Fonny's story in If Beale Street Could Talk is about their fight against time. Throughout the novel, they do what they can to cope with a tense feeling of anticipation, waiting all the while to discover what will happen during Fonny's trial.

Who is Jimmy in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

For 25-year-old Canadian actor Stephan James, taking the role of Alonzo 'Fonny' Hunt in Barry Jenkins' adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk was a no-brainer: “Well, it's James Baldwin. And it's the first time James Baldwin's being adapted, ever.

Where was If Beale Street Could Talk filmed? ›

(Near Riverside Park) 12th Avenue and West 135th Street, Harlem. Sharon Rivers Apartment, 422 St Nicholas Avenue (btw West 130th & 132nd Streets) Harlem. Minetta Street (btw Minetta Lane and Bleecker Street) Manhattan. Malcolm X Blvd (btw West 122nd and 123rd Streets) Harlem.

Why is fonny in jail? ›

A twenty-two-year-old black man in prison because he has been wrongfully accused of raping Mrs. Rogers. Shortly before his arrest, Fonny asks Tish—whom he has known since he was a child—to marry him, and the young couple make plans to start their life together.

What happened to fonny? ›

We eventually learn that Fonny has been set up by Bell (Ed Skrein), a racist white policeman, who, before transferring to the precinct where he arrests Fonny, shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy.

Is If Beale Street Could Talk sad? ›

But If Beale Street Could Talk is also very sad. That the characters' love for each other is true is never in doubt; but the pall of their circumstances is always present as well. The movie is so bittersweet because it centers Black love: Fonny and Tish's young, blossoming love.

Does fonny take a plea deal? ›

Unable to get enough evidence, Fonny takes a plea deal, and years later, Tish and her young son come and see him at visiting hours at the prison.

How did Tish and fonny meet? ›

On her way home on the bus, Tish reflects on her history with Fonny. They have known each other since she was six and he was nine, and they became friends after she hit him in the face with a piece of wood during a fight between their friends after school.

Is the movie If Beale Street Could Talk on Netflix? ›

Don't miss this fantastic movie when it hits Netflix on September 1.

What is Beale Street based on? ›

If Beale Street Could Talk (film)
If Beale Street Could Talk
Directed byBarry Jenkins
Screenplay byBarry Jenkins
Based onIf Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Produced byAdele Romanski Sara Murphy Barry Jenkins Dede Gardner Jeremy Kleiner
13 more rows

What happens on Beale Street movie? ›

African-American teen sweethearts Fonny and Tish are ripped apart when Fonny is wrongly arrested for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman because of the machinations of a racist cop.

How long is the movie If Beale Street could talk? ›

Who is the narrator in If Beale Street could talk? ›

The eighteen-year-old Tish is the narrator of Baldwin's novel. Through winding, nonlinear flashbacks, she tells us what has happened to her and Fonny. Growing up in Harlem, they were childhood friends.

Who are the main characters in If Beale Street could talk? ›

If Beale Street Could Talk

Who narrates If Beale Street could talk? ›

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad.

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