FILM REVIEW: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: A Baldwin story

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” it would tell a story of ageless love, excruciating pain and the numbing reality of black Americans. The film personified the concrete streets of Harlem in the early 1970s, bringing to life the urban city streets with vibrant hues and dramatic cinematography. 

On the surface, Harlem’s heritage consists of the heartbeat of lively jazz, bonafide soul food and the timeless black history it designed. The artistic eruption of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as “The New Negro Movement” in the 1920s, became the foundation and pioneer of the intellectual and social rebirth of the black American. 

The film closely followed the renowned 1974 novel written by novelist, playwright and activist James Baldwin about two young lovers, Tish and Fonny, fighting a traumatic series of unfortunate events while undergoing one of the most marvelous experiences. Fonny found himself in a regrettably common predicament for black males throughout that time, the wrongful accusation of a crime, in this particular case, rape, all while Tish found out she was having Fonny’s child. 

Although the book and film were brought to life through fictitious characters, the plot is undoubtedly a reality. The film touches on the broader lens of the brutality black Americans endured in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.  

The film began with a breathtaking high angle shot of the couple walking symmetrically on the pavement of Harlem underneath an autumn tree with leaves the color of lemons, giving away the time of year. The director did an amazing job complimenting the rich complexion of the actors through wardrobe, lighting and a setting offering a breath of fresh air to cinematography. 

Throughout the film, I was in awe of the intensity of the images jumping out to the audience and the extreme close-ups conveying the obvious and subtle emotions of the scenes. The brilliant score composed by Nicholas Britell completed the aura of passion, sorrow and sympathy that flattered the warm imagery, only elevating the sentimental value of the film.  

Director Barry Jenkins has proven himself once again as a force to be reckoned with, succeeding his 2016 masterpiece “Moonlight,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. He reintroduced astounding actors such as Regina King, Stephan James, Brian Tyree Henry and introduced cinefiles to the young and coming Kiki Layne who played Tish Rivers. Layne’s emotional performance of a 19-year-old soon-to-be mother dealing with the burden of a lost lover and the baby she carried beneath her heart makes it difficult for the viewer not to embrace her character. 

Throughout the film, we listen to Layne’s character walk us through her love, life and loss, soothing us with the words of her sad love song and allowing the audience to relate. Fonny, played by Stephan James, tells the unwritten and unseen truth of what can happen when someone is suppressed from their astronomical talents and brilliance because of the body they were born in. Fonny personified the injustice that is engraved into the history of black people and his emotional journey was a difficult pill to swallow. 

“If Beale Street Could Talk” only played in select theaters, so when I found out the Princeton Garden Theatre was having a showing, I refused to miss my opportunity. I was accompanied by nothing but high expectations, which were exceeded that Sunday afternoon. The audience and I froze in reaction to big scenes with small movements of the hands or widened eyes that did not blink, waiting to see what would happen next. As the ending credits began to roll, the audience was still, as if expecting the unexpected.  

I was left with a quote said by Baldwin in the trailer of the film, “When I was growing up, I was trying to make a connection between the life I saw and the life I lived. There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it…I’ll tell you a story, if I may.”

                                                         Qur’an Hansford 

                                                          journalism major

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