“If Beale Street Could Talk” comes to the M.V. Film Center this weekend. Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, it celebrates the love of a young Harlem couple in the 1970s. Located in Memphis, Beale Street is home to many of the region’s great blues clubs. Baldwin has said that every black person in America was born on Beale Street. Hence the significance of the film’s title.
Barry Jenkins, whose film “Moonlight” (2016) won Oscars for Best Screenwriting and Best Picture, directed “If Beale Street Could Talk” with a similar sensitivity. The lovers whose story the film follows are 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), who works at a department store perfume counter, and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James), an aspiring sculptor. They have known each other since childhood, and in flashbacks the viewer sees them happily splashing each other in a bathtub as children. Friendship grows into young love, and Jenkins uses colors, crosscutting, close-ups, and wide-angle shots to portray the young couple’s romance. The film opens with the couple walking along the Hudson River, Fonny wearing a yellow shirt and blue denim jacket and Tish wearing a blue dress and yellow coat. These colors are repeated throughout. Close-ups convey the purity of the couple’s love. Romance grows into first lovemaking, and soon the couple is looking for an apartment to share and planning to marry.
Then in a local bodega, a racist white man hits on Tish, and an angry Fonny roughs him up. Put a racist neighborhood cop, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), on the scene, and trouble hatches. Only the intervention of the bodega owner keeps Fonny from being arrested, but Officer Bell remains on the lookout for him. After a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), gets raped, Officer Bell convinces her to pick out Fonny in a lineup. Even though he was on the other side of town and had an alibi, Fonny ends up in jail.
Tish discovers she’s pregnant, but she’s far from alone. Her mother Sharon (Regina King, who won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress), and her dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) embrace their daughter and her pregnancy. Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) angrily rejects the pregnancy, leading to a violent scene between her and her husband. Trish’s family and Fonny’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) scramble to come up with money for a lawyer, the two fathers stealing goods from their jobs and selling them on the side. Tish’s mother travels to Puerto Rico in an attempt to persuade Victoria to recant.
The film follows the attempts to free Fonny and Trish’s growing pregnancy up to and after the birth of her son. Trish narrates much of the story, telling the viewers, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” The casual, common, and institutionalized racism of the time comes through loud and clear. The redemptive power of love is the film’s main message, as it is in Baldwin’s novel, adapted so successfully by Jenkins. Viewers familiar with Baldwin’s masterful work will understand the significance of that message. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Picture, will no doubt earn, even win, Oscar nominations.
Information and tickets for “If Beale Street Could Talk” and other films playing at the Film Center and the Capawock are available at mvfilmsociety.com.