This film is based on a book by the same title written by James Baldwin. I have not read the book but by all accounts, it is a riveting read, a wrenching story of African-American love and lives, set in Harlem in the 1970s, and it makes the perfect subject for Barry Jenkin's new film.
Beale Street is a street in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee. It is a significant location in the city's history, as well as in the history of the blues.
Barry Jenkins quotes James Baldwin in his adaptation of the author's book If Beale Street Could Talk. "Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy." Barry Jenkins, for those of you who may not remember, won Best Picture for his film Moonlight a couple of years ago. Here he is taking the story of the novel and putting it delicately and artfully on our screens for us all to enjoy.
The story is one of young love. Two young African-Americans, who have virtually grown up together, begin to have feelings for one another. The young woman is Tish, who is 19 (Kiki Layne). She has a beautiful face with doe-like eyes and a gentle voice and manner. Her beloved is a young man called Alonzo (Stephan James), who is playfully called Fonny by his family and friends. They are at the start of a passionate love story and this is narrated to us by Tish, who warns us about the perils of "loving someone through glass". All will be revealed...
The story weaves in and out of the past and the present. They become lovers, they commit to one another and look for somewhere to set up house. Then Fonny is unjustly accused of having raped a woman and is thrown into jail. At their first meeting, across the glass panel in jail, Tish announces to Fonny that she is expecting his child. He is at once delighted at the news and upset at the thought that he might not be out of jail before his child is born.
Tish shyly tells her family who promptly invite Fonny's family over to share the joy. Except that the news is received wholly differently by Fonny's mother, who is religious to the point of being abusive, to Tish and her family. The families resolve to support her and to try and get Fonny out of jail. Regina King is amazing as Tish's non judgemental and supportive mother. She won a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress just recently. Tish's father and Fonny's father as well as Fonny's friend, all give us rich and often amusing dialogue and insights into African-American lives. The film then moves on between their past and present lives, taking us through the emotional journey that Tish has to endure in her commitment to stay with Fonny.
We see the two young people, touching, holding hands, the camera zooms into their faces, as one speaks the other recedes, as the other responds the first is phased out. The colours are invariably chiaroscuro, almost like a painting. The camera holds steady on their faces, their expressions and their expectations. I found this aspect of the film very rewarding. I felt it conveyed the gentleness of their emotions and their loves, even the strong family love between all members of Tish's family. This film is not for those who love action. Its whole essence and persona is languid and sensory and gentle to the point where perhaps you feel that the director is being kind to us. Wants us to have a good time watching the film, which in its core is about the African-American neighbourhoods where children grow up thinking they are 'shit', (Tish's words) with no hopes and expectations, no goals and no one to help them. The family is the one bodyguard of life and love – everything outside that, you sense is alien and downright hostile.
It is not coincidental that there is only one white actor in the whole film and he is the evil and prejudiced cop on whose false testimony Fonny ends up in jail. It is desperately unfair and it is the 1970s – remember those years? So to have a director produce a film, which not only touches on all these issues but does so artfully and with enormous sensitivity, is an achievement in itself. Does he underplay the cruelty of living in these neighbourhoods and the emptiness of some of the lives? I think perhaps he does but most of us can pick up on the messages without them being graphically shown to us.
It is a world I confess I do not know. So I was keen to see it even if it is portrayed with some artistic licence. We all need to be aware of how wrong colour prejudice and injustice are.
It may win awards at the Oscars. It may be seen by most of the African-American population in the US and elsewhere but what I hope more than anything is that it is embraced by a much wider audience as a new and exciting genre of films about African American lives.