FRIDAY 28 FEBRUARY
Doors: 7.30pm Film: 8pm
If Beale Street Could Talk (15)
The incredible documentary about James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro” blew our audience away last season. Now here is one of his novels brought to the screen by the director of “Moonlight” Barry Jenkins. The story of two young lovers torn apart by prejudice, bigotry and injustice. Gorgeous, powerful, and stunningly crafted, If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterpiece.
A visually stunning and emotionally intense meditation on young love, family and social injustice in America. The book was written 20 years ago, but it is utterly relevant today.
Here is a film almost woozy with its own beauty and dignity, a film going transcendently high in the face of a racist world going low. It is a tribute of quiet passion extended to those lives fractured by injustice, and seems to serenely offer up their hard-won heroism to ward off bigotry’s corrosive evil. This is a great-looking, heartfelt and deeply intelligent picture from writer-director Barry Jenkins, an Oscar-winner for his previous film Moonlight from 2016. He has adapted the novel by James Baldwin about Tish (KiKi Layne), a young pregnant black woman in early-70s New York who has to battle for justice when her partner Fonny (Stephan James), the father of her child, is wrongly charged with rape. Fonny has been stitched up by a vengeful white cop (Ed Skrein) who was humiliated after a street altercation involving Fonny. His petulant authority was challenged, and he decided from that moment on that he just didn’t like Fonny’s face.
It could be said that If Beale Street Could Talk, unquestionably a work of real moral seriousness and artistry, nonetheless falls a bit short of Moonlight. It has a certain literary self-consciousness and it might not have the audacity and pure blaze of passion in that earlier film. There also are stylistic and tonal shifts that don’t quite hang together as cleanly as the tripartite structure of Moonlight. We get sudden jags and stabs of realism, poking holes in the film’s plangent sweetness, which will then quickly heal up, helped by the rich orchestral score from composer Nicholas Britell.
But these reservations arguably misread what Jenkins is doing here: it is a storytelling style that approximates the literary past tense, and also the mysterious operation of memory, which retrieves scenes and setpieces out of narrative order. In some ways, the film is itself about memory, and there is something of Terrence Malick in its rhapsodic form.
The love story of Fonny and Tish is something that the audience has to catch up on late, from a present moment of disaster. They were childhood friends, blindsided by the sudden realisation in their teens that they were in love.
Their fathers Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Frank (Michael Beach) are easygoing buddies from way back, delighted in the forthcoming marriage setting a dynastic seal on their friendship. But Fonny’s fiercely religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis) disapproves of her son’s association with Tish and the lovers’ sisters don’t get along. A more reserved figure is Tish’s mother Sharon – a quietly excellent performance from Regina King – who must finesse and negotiate all the diplomatic problems of this crisis.
Sharon is at the centre of the film’s most fascinating set piece. When Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), the woman who was raped and then coerced by the police into identifying Fonny, leaves the city, thus causing a chaotic delay in the legal process, it is Sharon who must travel to Puerto Rico to track her down and speak to her. The scene emerges almost like something from a spy story or a thriller, with Sharon arriving in disguise. It is a very mysterious encounter, a sudden insight into the life of another woman subject to racism and cruelty, a woman who appears and recedes into invisibility like a mirage.
There are other wonderful set pieces. Tish has a job selling scent at a department store and is vulnerable to all sorts of creepy male customers who use a sample-smell request as an excuse to get up close and personal: black men ask her to spritz their hand; white men will take her perfumed hand and smell it (for slightly too long) in a creepy parody of gallantry. It is a vivid, sensual snapshot of arrogance.
The most powerful sequence comes with Fonny’s friend Daniel (a great performance from Brian Tyree Henry) who arrives in Fonny’s apartment – and talks. He is to reveal something important and inauspicious about what he’s been doing for the past few years, but somehow this isn’t exactly what makes this scene so gripping. It is just the spectacle of these two men talking about themselves.
In some ways, If Beale Street Could Talk is a portmanteau movie with great performances from KiKi Layne, Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry, a succession of scenes from interrelated lives, constellated around the main narrative arc and supercharged with an ecstasy of sadness and knowledge.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins, James Baldwin
Cinematographer: James Laxton
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Running time: 119 mins
Rotten Tomatoes - 100%
The Guardian - ★★★★★
The Telegraph - ★★★★★
The Independent - ★★★★★
The Times - ★★★★★