'If Beale Street Could Talk' film review: An elegant tone poem of love realized on film
In short: Set in Harlem of the early 1970s, young Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) fall in love. But their life together is upended when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, leaving a pregnant Tish to prove his innocence. Regina King, Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris also star.
"Beale Street" is an evocative, sublime and lyrical poem brought to life. It is infused with a genuine and beautiful love, as well as a plain-spoken, quietly seething frustration of a rigged and broken justice system. Jenkins's elegantly sculpted screenplay layers a story of outrageous social injustice interwoven with a tone poem of sincere devotion.
Fonny's wrongful imprisonment is the film's jumping off point. His plight is the plot driver - but the film wisely instead focuses on the emotional fallout of Fonny's arrest and impending trial. "Beale Street" has a clear social commentary - but the film isn't content to just rant and rail to make its points. It doesn't resort to easy melodrama to drive home its message.
Instead, the experiential film so empathizes with its rich, dimensional characters that the audience feels like they are in the shoes of Tish and Fonny. The film effuses humanity and heartache and sorrow and love as it immerses the audience in the couple's hopes, joys and fears. In connecting the audience so intimately with Tish and Fonny, "Beale Street" then succeeds in its true goal - making the audience feel the injustice and pain of a broken system. Humanizing the injustices that Tish, Fonny and their loved ones suffer and struggle with powerfully instills the story's all-too-relevant themes.
The run-of-the-mill “love story” is usually a very simple, unremarkable story packed with the usual tropes: a love triangle, grand gestures and/or some contrived misunderstanding. “Beale Street” is a pure, humane love story because the scenes do not crescendo to these hackneyed moments. Every scene is born out of an act of love. Tish and Fonny’s every character decision is compelled by unconditional love. This injects a purity into the gritty, unjust streets of ‘70s New York. The lack of saccharine, lazy plot moments makes “Beale Street” a stronger love story than some of the so-called cinematic “great romances.”
In a film rife with humane performances, Brian Tyree Henry ("Widows" and "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse") arguably has the best extended cameo of 2018. With his few minutes of screentime and appearing in just one scene, Henry's monologue typifies the fear and heartache of being African American in the America - a powerful soliloquy of fear and feeling dehumanized.
Final verdict: "Beale Street" feels like a stage production realized as a film - honest, intimate and complex.
"If Beale Street Could Talk" opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 25. This drama has a running time of 119 minutes and is rated R for language and some sexual content.