LOVE BROUGHT US HERE: 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Review
“Love is what brought us here.”
In his introduction at the Toronto International Film Festival world premiere of his latest film, those were the last words Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight) uttered before the Princess of Wales Theatre went dark and If Beale Street Could Talk poured over the screen. Repeated again during the film, that short but powerful sentence reminded us all why we—and this movie itself—were here. This movie is a love letter in the most crucial and necessary sense.
Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk introduces us to childhood best friends turned young lovers, Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Toronto’s own Stephan James). It gives away nothing to say that after Fonny gets thrown in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, Tish learns she’s pregnant and will stop at nothing to find a way to free her love. With that as the skeleton of the story, the muscles, fat, and flesh of the movie come from so much more.
If Beale Street Could Talk shows the expression of Black love in its myriad of forms. The romance between Tish and Fonny of course, equal parts pureness and passion. The love between a parent and child, exhibited by just how far Tish’s parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) will go to support their children. The love between siblings, shown in a lively scene where Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) issues a vicious threat towards someone who dares disrespect her baby sis. The love between friends, displayed powerfully by Fonny and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) in one of the most haunting performances I’ve ever seen on film. Love is the currency but Black love is of supreme value—and Jenkins ensures that we revere it through the entire film.
If Beale Street Could Talk consists of two timelines running parallel to each other. There’s the current time (albeit set in the 1970s) where Fonny is imprisoned, Tish is pregnant, and everyone is doing their damnedest to ensure a safe delivery of their child and the hopeful release of Fonny. Then there’s the past, flashbacks masterfully intertwined that tell us how these players got here. How Tish and Fonny fell in love, how Fonny ended up in jail, what life was like amidst the racism of 1970s Harlem and America’s continued prison industrial complex. With Baldwin’s words weaving the tale, we bear witness to a story that gives you the glow of true love and the gloom of anti-Blackness one beat after the other, without leaving viewers weighed down by hopelessness. The hopelessness is unavoidable—but Jenkins ensures that we remember the love above all.
The way Black skin and natural hair are illuminated on screen
The colour scheme of greens and yellows and oranges, and the story told with set and costume design
The jazz-based musical score, so embedded in the film that it acts as a co-star
The patience Jenkins employs—nothing is rushed, so we are able to fully see the characters, breathe in tandem with them, and immerse ourselves in their experiences
The incredibly skilled and gifted cast, who gave us despair, hope, laughter, and passion effortlessly (Brian Tyree Henry, KiKi Layne, and Stephan James are the future of Hollywood, mark my words)
Following the screening, Jenkins and the main cast walked out on stage to a rapturous standing ovation. Jenkins wiped away tears as did many of the cast members, with Henry and King noting that this was the first time they had seen the full film. Jenkins revealed that he started writing this film at the same time as Moonlight, and was determined to bring Baldwin’s words to life in a manner befitting the icon. He shared that the scene between Fonny and Daniel sealed the deal for him that this would be something special—especially given the racism he had experienced in Hollywood during Moonlight’s run. He retold a story of attending the illustrious Oscars Governor’s Ball, and waiting with valet for his vehicle to pull up as he was leaving for another party. As he stood in his “$5000 suit,” one of the valets told him he probably didn’t want to talk to the valet who would likely be bringing his car around. Jenkins asked why, and was told that the valet realized whose car he was getting and remarked that Jenkins was “just some nigger—but he’ll probably win for Best Director.” It was in that moment that Jenkins realized that if he, with his Oscar award and expensive suit could be so demeaned by someone who, in that moment, had relatively little comparative power, it didn’t matter what he did or how well he presented. He would always be seen as “just some nigger.”
Hearing that story, it became even more apparent why If Beale Street Could Talk is a love letter in the most crucial and necessary sense. The love of Blackness, the love between Black people, the love exhibited by both Baldwin and Jenkins in these connected works, If Beale Street Could Talk reminds us of all the ways that love nurtures us, heals us, sustains us, and how it has indeed brought us here.