If Beale Street Could Talk is best described by a single line delivered by Dave Franco’s character Leavy, “I just dig people who love each other.” Barry Jenkins’ 3rd feature, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is structured by Jenkins (who adapted the novel for the screen) like a thesis on love and race in 1970’s Harlem, NY. The story follows Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) before, during, and after Tish’s pregnancy.
Layne and James are phenomenal. While Regina King (more on her later) is receiving the most attention for her role in the film, the two leads have a natural chemistry that allows them to go to places that would best be described as “relationship goals.” (To be honest with you, I do not like what I have become as a writer, falling for every possible pop culture reference while trying to be taken seriously. But what the heck else am I going to do, not take the bait. I have one editor and that person hasn’t stopped me yet! I’m like Draymond Green. What I do might be distracting and useless at times, but I’m not changing until I cross the line. (I’m so sorry you read that)) With the help of Jenkins, cinematographer James Laxton, and editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, each character is given ample time and exposure to show their characters’ joy, sorrow, and passion. While it is a wasted use of a decent cliché, both James and Layne feel as if they have lived in the characters since birth, giving them the ability to read and react to each situation with sincerity and genuine emotional responses. Regina King’s performance as Tish’s mother, Sharon Rivers, does not give you the character that you might think you will get. King is able to play her with equal amounts of discipline and love. She does not create the atmosphere of every scene she was in, which is more a testament to the screenplay and source material. It is an authentic performance that deserves all the praise that it has been given up to this point.
Time for a hawt take. If Beale Street Could Talk should win the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. An award that it is not even nominated for! Bryan Tyree Henry (Daniel Carty), Coleman Domingo (Joseph Rivers), Teyonah Parris (Ernestine Rivers), Michael Beach (Frank Hunt), Aunjanue Ellis (Mrs. Hunt), Ebony Obsidian (Adrienne Hunt), Dominique Thorne, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, and Dave Franco all help create a truly magnificent and honest representation of the Tish and Fonny’s universe. Domingo, Beach, and Ellis should be in some sort of award conversation just like King, but since each of the characters has limited screen time, the probability is that only one will find their way to any type of awards conversation. The best possible way to sum this up, if the SAG would do its job, this paragraph would not have to exist. Since SAG did not do its job, you get this. You are welcome!
The work of Jenkins as a screenwriter is exceptional. With no relation with the source material, it might be easy not to know what to expect heading into this film. It is not an exaggeration to say that there are practically no wasted scenes. The film is tight and efficient, producing emotional gut punch after emotional gut punch. An exceptional script with such a gifted cast provides scenes like when Fonny’s family is told about Tish’s pregnancy, or when Daniel explains his jail experience to Fonny. Each is a moment that should be in the conversation for best scene of the year. While it would be dumbfounding and stupid not to give any of the actors in these scenes credit, the structure and dialogue stick out of each scene as well. The plot organization of the film makes the emotion fly off the screen. Jenkins gives the viewer all the necessary information at the beginning of the film but adds important details along the way. (Thus the comparison to a thesis) The non-linear style of the film is supplemented by occasional interludes that give the audience more of a reason to care and invest themselves into any and every portion of the story. No character is too small and no character is too big, each is developed enough to serve their purpose while not stealing any spotlight from the focus of the film, love.
To juxtapose Tish and Fonny’s relationship with race relations in New York during this time period is also a brilliant storytelling decision. The racism that the characters face throughout the film acts as yet another force that pushes the audience to pull for those characters’ beautiful love story. It holds the potential for tragedy over your head while also presenting a potential fix to the problem. While you have the suspicion that things will not turn for the best in the case of Tish and Fonny, you also have realistic hope that it will become much better. This juxtaposition also creates an undeniable reality to the film. Even though the filmmakers do a great job making the setting feel real using outstanding period designs in the film, this juxtaposition makes the world feel even more authentic to the audience, even though it is not easy to watch.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful yet poignant film that deserves all the credit that it has received up to this point. Of all the films that have been mentioned in the awards conversation up to this point, this Barry Jenkins picture is the most solid in all areas. Unfortunately, from the sound of the conversation up to this point, it is not a frontrunner for any categories outside of Regina King’s candidacy for best supporting actress. If it is a case of a film being too good in all areas, then it will have to settle for a large number of nominations with very little to show in statuettes. As weird as it seems, Jenkins’ success with Moonlight might also hurt If Beal Street Could Talk’s chances too. Neither of these conversations bring up another argument, which is the Academy cannot have a film so small and intimate win best picture, because of the recent push to make the Oscars relevant again. Bottom line is that it is such a shame that a great movie like this one has so many potential obstacles in its way.
Thanks for reading! Curtis