Sunday, January 13, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

Based on the novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of a young woman who turns to her family for help in trying to free her lover who is wrongly charged with a crime as she hopes to free him before the birth of their first child. Written for the screen and directed by Barry Jenkins, the film is a period drama set in early 1970s Harlem as it play into a couple who meet and fall in love only for things to go wrong due to a false accusation. Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, and Regina King. If Beale Street Could Talk is an evocative and touching film from Barry Jenkins.

Set in early 1970s Harlem, the film revolves around a young couple whose life is in disarray when the man is accused of raping a young woman as those who know him are aware he’s innocent. Adding to the plight for this young man is that his girlfriend is pregnant as her family is trying to get him out of prison and prove he’s innocent in a world that is getting more complicated. It’s a film that play into the plight of two young lovers as they deal with the arrival of a baby as one family is willing to help yet the other, with the exception of the man’s father, chooses not to help. Barry Jenkins’ screenplay aims for a reflective narrative of sorts as it relates to the character of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) who looks back on her life with Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) as well as the moment they conceived their child while cutting back to the present where Fonny is in jail as he just learned Tish is a few months pregnant.

The film moves back and forth to the times when Tish and Fonny were a couple as they knew each other since they were kids although Tish is a few years younger than Fonny. Their relationship is one filled with innocence and dreams as Fonny does whatever he can to learn a trade while also discovering his passion for being a sculptor. The flashback scenes also showcase moments of darkness such as a visit from Fonny’s friend Daniel Cartee (Brian Tyree Henry) who had just been released in prison as he reveals what he had seen as it would play into Fonny’s worries for the future following a terrible encounter with a racist police officer named Bell (Ed Skrein). The present narrative that play into Fonny’s time in prison as well as the impossibility of what had happened to this young woman in Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) who suddenly returned to her home in Puerto Rico. While the Rivers’ attorney in Hayward (Finn Wittrock) is trying to help the family, there are complications prompting Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) to find Rogers herself as it present revelations about the severity of what happened to Rogers.

Jenkins’ direction definitely has this poetic tone to the film as it play into Tish’s recollections of her life with Fonny through voice over narration as well as playing into the ideas of the life she and Fonny could have but also be aware of the dark realities around them. Shot on location in New York City with Harlem being the predominant location as well as additional locations in the Dominican Republic as Puerto Rico. Jenkins does use wide shots to establish the locations but emphasizes more on close-ups and medium shots in carefully crafted compositions to maintain an intimacy between the characters. Most notably the scene where Tish and her family ask Fonny’s family for a drink where Tish’s father Joseph Rivers (Colman Domingo) and her older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) are excited about the news of Tish and Fonny’s baby as is Fonny's father Frank Hunt (Michael Beach). Yet, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and his sisters Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne) aren’t happy with the news.

It’s among these simple yet tense scenes where Jenkins play into this tension as well as the severity of what Fonny is enduring as well as some of the fallacies into what he’s charged with as it relates to the different parts of New York City. The scenes at the prison where Fonny and Tish meet have Jenkins use some extreme close-ups but also medium shots for the setting as the latter is dealing with her pregnancy while there’s repetitious images of her at the subway. The film’s third act that play into Sharon going to Puerto Rico to find Rogers as it is this poignant sequence that play into Sharon’s desperation to get Rogers to tell the truth about Fonny and prove his innocence but it ends up being an uneasy task with lots of emotional repercussions.

Even as Jenkins reveals that what Fonny and Tish would deal with play into the fates of many others through pictures of African-Americans living in the ghettos during the 1970s and beyond but also show that they would find a way to maintain a sense of hope for their child. No matter how bad the circumstances can be and the injustice that many African-Americans have to suffer in the past and in the present as Jenkins reveals that despite all of these troubles. There is always hope through love. Overall, Jenkins crafts a rapturous and intoxicating film about a young woman hoping to free her lover from prison so he can be proved innocent and be with his family.

Cinematographer James Laxton does incredible work with the film’s cinematography as its usage of lights for some of the daytime/nighttime interiors and nighttime exteriors as well as the usage of natural lighting play into the beauty of the times despite some of its ugliness. Editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders do amazing work with the editing with its usage of jump-cuts as well a montage involving Tish dealing with her pregnancy and other stylish cuts that play into the drama. Production designer Mark Friedberg, with set decorators Devynne Lauchner and Kris Moran plus art directors Robert Pyzocha, Oliver Rivas Madera, and Jessica Shorten, does excellent work with the look of the family home of Tish’s parents as well as the home she and Fonny were eager to live as it would be something really special plus the Puerto Rican restaurant they like to go to. Costume designer Caroline Eselin does brilliant work with the costumes in terms of the stylish clothing the characters would wear to play into the times while Fonny’s mother is presented in this very uptight demeanor in her clothing as if she represents this false idea of purity.

Visual effects supervisors John Bair and John Mangia do nice work with the visual effects where it is largely set-dressing for some of the exteriors to help play into the period of the times. Sound designers Odin Benitez and Bryan Parker, along with sound editor/mixer Onnalee Blank, do fantastic work with the sound in capturing the atmosphere of the locations as well as the sound of records being played from a record player and other sparse elements that is key to the film’s sound work. The film’s music by Nicholas Brittell is phenomenal for its rich and intoxicating orchestral score that has elements of lush string arrangements as well as operatic tones and other subtle themes as it is a major highlight of the film while music supervisor Gabe Hilfer creates a soundtrack that is filled with a mixture of blues, jazz, soul, Latin music, and other contemporary pieces of the time.

The casting by Cindy Tolan is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from Dave Franco as a landlord who shows Tish and Fonny this big loft home, Diego Luna as a Puerto Rican restauranteur who is a friend of Fonny, Finn Wittrock as the Rivers’ attorney Hayward who does what he can to help them knowing that he’s up for a big legal battle, Pedro Pascal as a local Puerto Rican hood in Pierto Alvarez who meets with Sharon about Rogers, Milanni Mines and Ethan Barrett in their respective roles as the adolescent versions of Tish and Fonny, Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne in their respective roles as Fonny’s sisters Adrienne and Sheila who aren’t excited about the news of Fonny’s new baby, and Emily Rios in a terrific performance as Victoria Rogers as a woman who had been raped and believes that Fonny is the one who raped her.

Michael Beach and Aunjanue Ellis are superb in their respective roles as Fonny’s parents in Frank and Mrs. Hunt with Beach as this man that is ecstatic about the arrival of a grandchild as he is eager to help his son get out of jail while Ellis has this chilling presence as a woman who is convinced her son is in jail because he sinned greatly against God. Ed Skrein is fantastic in his small role as the racist police officer Bell as a man that confronts Fonny one night and tries to get him arrested as he would later play a part in Fonny’s incarceration. Brian Tyree Henry is excellent as Daniel Carty as a friend of Fonny who had been paroled as he talks about his experience in prison as well as what he saw during his time. Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris are brilliant in their respective roles as Tish’s father Joseph and older sister Ernestine as two people being supportive of Tish as well as do what they can to get Fonny out of jail and prove his innocence. Regina King is incredible as Tish’s mother Sharon as a woman that is supportive of her daughter as well as wanting to prove that Fonny is innocent as it’s an understated yet riveting performance from King who really is a major highlight of the film.

The performances of KiKi Layne and Stephan James are phenomenal in their respective roles as Tish and Fonny. Layne’s performance is one filled with innocence as a 19-year old woman trying to understand what Fonny is going through as well as deal with her pregnancy as it’s a calm yet radiant performance from Layne. James’ performance is one that is full of sensitivity and care but also someone who is aware of the dark aspects of the real world as he does show some anger during a confrontation with a man trying to harass Tish as well as the struggle he is having in prison. Layne and James together just have this natural chemistry in the way they spend time with one another as well as deal with the pain of being apart as they talk together in prison.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a tremendous film from Barry Jenkins. Featuring a great ensemble cast, gorgeous visuals, Nicholas Brittell’s gorgeous score, and themes of love and family trying to help one another. It’s a touching drama that play into the period of racial injustice and unfairness during 1970s Harlem as well as show what some people will do to provide some hope and love in these troubled times. In the end, If Beale Street Could Talk is a spectacular film from Barry Jenkins.

Barry Jenkins Films: Medicine for MelancholyMoonlight - (The Underground Railroad (2021 Limited TV Series) - (Mufasa: The Lion King)

© thevoid99 2019


keith71_98 said...

Glad you liked it. I loved it too, probably more than I expected. For me it has been a film that has progressively gotten better the more I think about it. Can't wait to see it again.

thevoid99 said...

@keith71_98-I had it either barely in the top 10 or outside after my initial viewing but as I was writing the review and thinking about it. I realized that it was better than I thought it would be. I hope to see it again soon.