Based on a James Baldwin book, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a love story.
Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are childhood friends who fall in love and look like they’re on their way to a life of happiness. But their world is suddenly turned upside down when Fonny is arrested for a rape he didn’t commit. Despite having a solid alibi, a cruel cop’s lies lead to Fonny’s conviction. To make matters worse, Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child.
Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) blames all of this on Tish, and wants no part of their problems. So the burden falls on Tish’s mother, Sharon, played by Regina Hall in one of the best performances of the year. She imbues Sharon with such compassion and grit that I found myself rooting for her at every obstacle, especially a scene in which the two mothers (and their daughters) face off across a living room coffee table. Hall elevates her game even more when Sharon goes to Puerto Rico to try to convince the woman who falsely accused Fonny to recant her testimony.
Layne and James are wonderful as the young couple, with a chemistry few modern screen pairs can match. I fully believed these two had known each other their whole lives. Brian Tyree Henry has a standout scene as Fonny’s old friend Daniel, just released from prison after also being framed by the police, with chilling information on what it’s like to be behind bars. Colman Domingo and Michael Beach are also effective as their fathers, Ed Skrein is appropriately despicable as the cop who’s out to get Fonny, and the rest of the supporting cast is solid, too.
My problem with “If Beale Street Could Talk” lies with writer/director Barry Jenkins. As in his Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” Jenkins’ pace is way too slow. As compelling as his characters are, he takes forever to tell the tale. I had the same problem with “Moonlight,” which moved so slowly I almost fell asleep. It’s almost as if he had 90 minutes of content but had been told the movie must run two hours. This is often a problem with writers who direct their own movies — there’s no higher authority to tell them to cut it down.
That’s too bad, because “If Beale Street Could Talk” is shot beautifully, the performers are all top-notch, and it carries an important message about the difficulties of growing up black in the USA. Though the story takes place in the early 1970s, it feels contemporary.
I give “If Beale Street Could Talk” a 7.5 out of 10.