New York Film Festival Movie Review: IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

Kiki Layne and Stephan James in IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Kiki Layne and Stephan James in IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Imagine the immense pressure that must’ve existed for Barry Jenkins after the rampant success of Moonlight. His debut feature film won the Oscar for Best Picture. How does he top that? A lot of people can’t handle the pressure after winning an Oscar, especially early in their careers, but the stress didn’t appear to faze Jenkins, or perhaps he used it to his advantage, because IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is yet another beautiful understated masterpiece.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is based on the legendary author James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. If it were me, I would be terrified of attempting to do a piece of one of the best American writers’ works, but again, Jenkins came off without a hitch. I dare say that if Baldwin were alive, he would be very proud of the adaptation.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK centers around the relationship between two young lovers, Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne; Captive State) and Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James; Race). Everything is going along quite nicely for them. The two grew up together and when they got older, they fell in love. Eventually Fonny asks Tish to marry him and they are about to move into a loft in downtown NYC, until racist Officer Bell of the NYPD (Ed Skrein; Deadpool) has it in for Fonny and frames him for the rape of Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios; Breaking Bad).

It’s right when Fonny goes to jail that Tish discovers she is pregnant. She tells her mother, Sharon (Regina King; Poetic Justice, The Boondocks, etc etc the woman is a legend), father Joseph (Colman Domingo; Assassination Nation, Selma), and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris; Chi-raq) after coming home from telling Fonny. They take it a lot better than one might expect, but Tish and her family anticipate that telling Fonny’s parents might be a little more difficult.

Tish’s family is a lot more progressive than Fonny’s, other than his father, Frank Hunt (Michael Beach; Soul Food, Aquaman), who proclaims to both families that he is “Hip” when Tish has the idea to invite the Hunts over the same night to tell them the news. Fonny’s dad even dresses like someone out of Superfly while the rest of the Hunts, who are all women, dress like they live in church.

Fonny’s mother, who’s only known as Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis; Ray, The Help) is, shall we say, less than thrilled about the upcoming birth of her grandchild, since it was born “out of sin”. Fonny’s sisters are with their mother on it. There’s a bit of a fracas in the house that night, but thankfully Tish and Fonny have support, even if not from his mother and sisters. They have hired a lawyer, Mr. Hayward (American Horror Story regular, Finn Wittrock) who is determined to expose the racist cop for who he is. The bad news is that Victoria has moved back to Puerto Rico. Mrs. Rivers tries to convince her to recant her testimony, travelling all the way down to Puerto Rico by herself.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK has its hallmark Barry Jenkins touches. The moody lighting and the long close up takes are all there. This all intertwines perfectly with James Baldwin’s words and tells the story of the couple through multiple flashbacks. Since this is Barry Jenkins’ first film after Moonlight, it seems like everybody in the world wanted to be in it. Along with the already stellar principal cast, there are wonderful cameos from Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta), Diego Luna (Star Wars: Rogue One, Y Tu Mama Tambien) Dave Franco (Neighbors, 21 Jump Street) and Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, Narcos).

I loved this film. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year. It subtly reminds us that we are still dealing with problems like this over 40 years after the publication of the novel. That though we have progressed in small ways as a country, and as a world, but there’s still a long way to go. Also, finally, Regina King absolutely deserves a Best Supporting Actress statue for her role. She slays the part and makes you feel Mrs. River’s overwhelming pain at the possibility of losing her son-in-law, and more importantly, her daughter’s fiancé, to the criminal justice system forever.  

In conclusion, please go see IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK in the theater when it’s released November 30th in the US. You certainly won’t regret it.

Lorry Kikta