To become poetic in the times and discrimination, is to resonate with how the characters in “If Beale Street Could Talk” think and feel. They’re given dialogue that moves and inspires you, and the tone matches their words. Director Barry Jenkins (the Oscar winner for “Moonlight”) expresses love in different ways: romance love, brother love, and poetic love, while adapting James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. He is a man of truth and art.
The story is set in Harlem in the 1970s, where we meet two young African-American lovers-the 22-year-old Fonny (Stephen James) and the 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne)-who have been the best of friends since childhood. They plan to marry, until a Spanish woman (Emily Rios) accuses Fonny of raping her in the dark (discrimination), and he get locked up.
At the same time, Tish is pregnant, and her loving family (Coleman Domingo, Regina King, and Teyonah Parris) are happy for her. But not Fonny’s religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), because she has always hated Tish, and now that her son’s in jail, her hatred has grown stronger. And Tish and family do everything they can to try to prove Fonny’s innocence, especially since the rape victim has fled the country.
The dialogue in “If Beale Street Could Talk” has characters expressing their feelings, whether they’ve been in prison, whether they’re family, and whether they’re religious. Splicing these elements together makes the words so expressive. It’s like I’m walking into a beatnik club where we actually care about their emotions. I may not understand every ounce of dialogue, but I still caught on to their expressions.
The acting in the movie is also superb. James and Layne have a somewhat old-fashioned chemistry that keeps you rooting for them. Ellis’ minor role sticks to you like glue long after the movie is over. And Domingo and King are both fantastic as the main girl’s parents. And Layne also expresses her love as the narrator.
The all-star cast also includes Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s ex-convict friend; Dave Franco as a Jewish real estate agent; Ed Skrien as a racist cop; Michael Beach as Fonny’s more upbeat father; Diego Luna as Fonny’s waiter friend; and Pedro Pascal as the person who may know where the rape victim went to. Cameos or not, you just love how their scenes take place.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” also sounds great, and the composer is Nicholas Britell, who also worked with Jenkins on “Moonlight.” When you hear how he balances the mood and tone of the scenes he has read in the book and screenplay, you know you’re in for a sentimental movie.
In Select Theaters December 14