“If Beale Street Could Talk” film review: A “radical project of black love”

By Ethan Bakuli

(Warning: Light spoilers ahead)

University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty, students and community members were in full attendance Sunday evening for a special film screening of If Beale Street Could Talk, hosted by the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies in partnership with local movie theater Amherst Cinema.

Afro-American Studies department chair Stephanie Shonekan introduced the evening’s screening, anticipating that Barry Jenkins’s (director of Moonlight and Medicine for Melancholy) film adaptation of the 1974 novel by James Baldwin would allow present-day audiences to “pause and think about what messages [Baldwin] is still sending us decades later.”

Following the film was a panel discussion moderated by Shonekan and including UMass faculty affiliated with the W.E.B. Du Bois department: English professors Emily Lordi and TreaAndrea Russworm and Afro-American studies professor A. Yęmisi Jimoh.

Beale Street, set in Harlem during the 1970s, follows the love story of young couple Alfonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James)  and Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), as their blossoming romance is abruptly cut short after Fonny is falsely accused of rape. While Fonny remains locked in jail awaiting his trial, Tish and their families race against the clock to prove Fonny’s innocence and bring him back home in time for the birth of their child.

While Baldwin’s voice is not present during the film, his vision echoes throughout. Professor Jimoh put it best during the discussion when she noted that Baldwin’s work “opens the sores of the nation.” His love of black folk is contrasted by his thorough critique of white supremacy and the toll it takes on everyday black life.

Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) (Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures)

Through the melodrama of Tish and Fonny’s relationship and Jenkins’ visual storytelling, we witness the monumental forces at work to disrupt black love. Rather than leave the audience feeling overwhelmed, Jenkins masterfully adapts Baldwin’s work to fit within our continuing struggle against mass incarceration and the ways it disrupts the livelihood of black families.

Panelists brought up the underlying political decisions taking shape during this time in American history. Jimoh and Lordi positioned the story’s narrative within national discourses scrutinizing black mothers and families following the release of the infamous Moynihan Report in 1965.

Social themes abound, the cast and crew come away with a beautifully shot, tenderly acted film. Everything is adorned with radiant light, matching together warm colors of reds, oranges, greens and browns. In sharp contrast to the midnight blues and purples found in Moonlight, Jenkins allows for Baldwin’s Harlem to come alive and consume the characters and scenery. This has become a landmark of Jenkins’ films – the way he shoots black people and their environment is spellbinding.

Russworm complimented the film’s director and crew for “displaying the power of cinema.” Throughout the film Jenkins seamlessly merges the external world of Harlem and the interior world of these black families. The technical language was, Russworm noted,  “big, bold and stylish,” with Jenkins making use of varying techniques such as slowed and out-of-focus shots, suspension of sound, and long takes to bring the viewer closer for many of the intimate scenes between characters.

Teyonah Parris, KiKi Layne and Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures)

Credit should be given to the supporting cast, in particular Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry’s performances as Tish’s mother Sharon and Fonny’s recently paroled friend Daniel, respectively. Both actors are given their moment to shine, bringing their characters and their complexities to life.

While Jenkin treats many of Baldwin’s characters with compassion and nuance, the biggest critique from the night’s panel went toward the one-dimensionality of Fonny’s mother and sisters.

“It didn’t strike the right chord,” remarked Russworm as she spoke on the scene with the three women when they first learn that Tish is pregnant.

Positioned as the “bad black matriarchs,” their characters appear to lack the gentle introspection provided to the rest of the cast. For a novel and film that wrestle with domestic violence and sexual assault, it felt significant to not interrogate their scene further in a way that Jenkins would go on to do in a scene between Sharon and Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) in Puerto Rico.

The film score should be given particular notice and is worth catching a viewing on its own. The way composer Nicholas Britell weaves brass and strings into a jazz and classical music combo that harkens at moments to Bernard Herrmann’s score of the 1976 film Taxi Driver. Move aside the bleak and gritty world of Martin Scorsese’s Manhattan and ideally you find Baldwin’s Harlem tucked in the corner: troubled but managing to thrive at times. The score matches the contrasts throughout the film; as professor Lordi put it, when “joy meets sorrow” and “devastation meets hope.”

At its best, this film comes off like a visual reenactment of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” or Donny Hathaway’s “Live,” encompassing the brevity, soul and social commentary that made those albums snapshots of an decade with a longlasting message.

Beale Street is continuing to run at Amherst Cinema Arts Center, playing weekdays at 7 p.m.

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