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“If Beale Street Could Talk,” is writer-director Barry Jenkins’s follow up to the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight.” It is one of several recent documentary and feature films (such as “BlackkKlansman,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and “The Hate U Give,” to deal with race relations, African-American identity, and police brutality in clear response to current events.
Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, “Beale Street,” focuses on the travails of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), childhood friends turned lovers. Shortly after Tish becomes pregnant with Fonny’s child, the latter is falsely accused of rape by a police officer with whom he quarreled and incarcerated him. Flashbacks detailing Fonny and Tish’s relationship are juxtaposed with the efforts of Tish and Fonny’s families to exonerate Fonny.
The film has the word “talk” in its title, and there’s certainly a lot of talking in it. Like the protagonist Starr in “The Hate U Give,” Tish narrates and frequently relates themes to the audience quite bluntly. This film has the longest scenes of any recent film I can remember. There are several that last five minutes or more. It’s to Jenkins’s credit that he takes the time to develop his characters and establish their relationships in detail, but some of the scenes — particularly those dealing with Alonso and Fonny’s relationship — go on far too long. As an adequate indicator of the level of subtlety, the closing credits close to a gospel rendition of “America The Beautiful.”
My tone has been harsh, thus far, but I give “Beale Street”, in film-reviewer parlance, “thumbs up.” The acting is first rate, particularly Regina King as Tish’s mother, Sharon, who becomes passionately devoted to freeing her grandson’s father. King deservedly won a Golden Globe and will likely be at least nominated for an Academy Award. If Tish and Fonny are perhaps presented as a bit too virtuous to be believable, Layne and James nonetheless deliver solid, resonant performances. The relevance of the film’s themes, in light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, and elsewhere, scarcely needs to be stated. And it is to Jenkins’ credit that he does not provide a happy, easy resolution to the film’s conflict. “Beale Street” may be a bit blunt about its message, but it’s a message that needs to be heard nonetheless. With “Moonlight” and now this film, Jenkins, a relatively young and inexperienced filmmaker, has demonstrated weaknesses but also a good deal of potential. He has a humanizing spirit and a genuine sympathy for those with odds stacked against them. It will be very interesting to see how his career develops.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is rated R for language, violence, and nudity. Locally, it is playing at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema and the AFI Silver Cultural Center.