James Baldwin’s novel, set in Harlem in the early 1970s, has been adapted into a searing, poignant film written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Sadly, the issues raised in this story of African-American lovers versus injustice continue to plague our country today. But in this period piece, two compelling actors draw us into their struggle as characters up against insurmountable odds. “If Beale Street Could Talk” was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now in commercial release.
Childhood friendship blossoms into love for Stephen James as Fonny and Kiki Layne as Tish. Fonny pursues his efforts at sculpture and Tish become pregnant with their child. Signs point to a potentially happy life for them. But then…
Fonny is falsely accused of rape as a result of a lying witness manipulated by a vengeful cop with a grudge. The situation for Fonny and Tish becomes painfully tragic. When Fonny is convicted and sentenced, the battle begins to clear his name and free him.
The efforts include an attempt by Regina King as Tish’s mother, Sharon, traveling to Puerto Rico, to seek out the accuser and get her to tell the truth. Fonny also has the support of a lawyer, played by Finn Whitrock. But all are up against the entrenched system in which a black man’s word has little or no chance against an accuser and an evil cop.
What makes the film so effective is the deep love portrayed so eloquently by James and Layne, as well as the sensitivity with which Jenkins (“Moonlight’) endows the adaptation. We become attached to Fonny and Tish and root for them to emerge from their nightmare. We can sympathize with Fonny’s effort to deal with prison, and with Tish’s devotion.
But what can the outcome be in the face of the reality that confronts them?
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is among the outstanding films of 2018. An Annapurna Pictures release. Reviewed December 14, 2018.