Powerful Beale Street focuses on tragedy of common racism
In a year in which we’ve had many films dealing with the issue of race in America, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is the most moving of the lot; this seemingly unassuming story doesn’t raise its voice or go out of its way to manipulate its audience to sympathize with victims of racial injustice. Rather, in adapting the novel by James Baldwin, Jenkins concentrates on the two young people at its center, an ordinary, relatable couple whose modest dreams of happiness are torn apart by an act of random discrimination that alters their lives and tests their love in a way no one should have to endure.
Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne) are lifelong friends who have gradually become lovers and inseparable partners. Loyal to one another, they are about to break the news to their respective families that she is pregnant and they are to be married. And while this isn’t welcomed by all, there’s plenty of love and support for them to be optimistic about their future. However, their bliss is shattered when he is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison for a crime that he did not commit, a circumstance the threatens the young married couple as it galvanizes their families to act in order to see justice done.
Jenkins applies a deft touch throughout the film’s first act as we witness Fonny and Tish fall in love.
Eschewing moments of melodrama or manipulation, the filmmaker takes a step back and allows us to simply observe the interactions between the two, engaging in common acts, showing a degree of tenderness and respect towards each other that are poignant displays of their devotion. It’s a quiet, unassuming approach that results in the creation of a more seemingly authentic on-screen couple, one that we can relate to in a way that feels less contrived and more realistic. The result is the audience has a deeper sense of identification with Fonny and Tish, making it much easier to feel their joy and pain.
We bask in their relationship during the first 45 minutes of the film before Jenkins cruelly pulls the rug out from under us, shifting the tone of the movie to one of horror and anger as the false accusations that will tear the couple apart descend upon them with a suddenness that’s shocking. By establishing the emotional bond between the characters and the audience, Jenkins makes it easy for us to empathize with them as well as hope that the efforts of Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King in a powerhouse performance) and their other relatives will result in some measure of justice. Though at times at odds with one another, this tragedy unites the family, all of them suddenly pulling in the same direction to not only free Fonny but help Tish raise their child as well.
The anger that ends up propelling the film is palpable and Jenkins, without overstating things, powerfully drives home the sense of injustice so many African-Americans have had to endure. Fonny and Tish are a common, unremarkable couple who simply want to live their lives, raise their child and pursue their passions in peace. Their aspirations are not grand and yet they’re prevented from realizing them, as modest as they might be. This is where the power of Beale Street lies, in showing us the devastating tragedy and long-term effects of common racism, acts that continue to wreak havoc on unassuming people who are simply pursuing a degree of happiness we all aspire to and deserve.
Look for my interview with director Barry Jenkins at the Cinemascoping blog at www.illinoistimes.com this Friday.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.