A young couple walks down a path in Central Park. As the camera pans, the beautiful illusion of peace and greenery is slowly broken. At first by graffiti, then by a highway as cars speed by and a billboard deteriorates in the background. They stop just before the stone railing. One of them looks back at the other and ends the silence. “You ready for this?”
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) follows the turbulent times of young lovers Tisha (KiKi Layne) and Fonzo (Stephan James), as Fonzo is accused of a crime he did not commit. Tisha must clear his name to free him, and simultaneously handle her newly discovered pregnancy. The movie slowly explores Tisha and Fonzo’s relationship through flashbacks. As the main plot progresses, we see the couple transition from childhood friends to lovers to the present times of legal setbacks. Fonzo lives the lifestyle of the starving artist, pursuing his passion for woodwork while independent from his family. This situation puts him at odds with both his family and Tisha’s comfortable childhood, fueling plentiful family drama.
Although Tisha’s mother Sharon (Regina King), sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) and father Joseph (Colman Domingo) take Trisha’s pregnancy incredibly well, the pot is quickly stirred by a memorable sparring match between Fonzo’s overbearingly religious mother and sisters against his father and Tisha’s family. From that point on, I knew this movie would be fantastic. While each character is exceedingly well played, Tisha’s family in particular is brought to life through such vigor and spark that they illuminate every scene they are in. Regina King’s Oscar nomination is entirely earned. Yet Layne—in her breakthrough role—and James must also be applauded for stellar performances, as they, like King, stand out a bit more than the already powerful cast.
“Beale Street” is a slow-broil, but impeccably so, as tension is the source of this movie’s drama. Tension surrounds Fonzo and Tisha’s relationship, highlighting the oppression of the systems in place even before Fonzo’s arrest, when a moment of pure dread elapses during his run-in with a maligned police officer. There is also an amazing scene of edge-of-your-seat tension, all within a simple dialogue scene between Fonzo and a childhood friend (Brian Henry). It’s all smiles and a recollection of the past until Henry’s character illuminates Fonzo on the horrors of imprisonment in an uncaring and racist system, his fear reaching out through the screen to the point of genuine unnerving. This inclusion of tender and touching moments between the glass in the visiting room, when Tisha reminds Fonzo that she understands him because she’s “with him” in his anguish, is a testament to the film’s range of expression and message of empathy and hope.
Although the film ends on a particularly melancholic note, ringing and unfinished, it is optimistic in the face of an overwhelmingly oppressive system with a heartfelt message of love within a world of suffering. “Beale Street” may not be for everyone with its slow but deliberate pace, yet it is a film everyone must see.
Contact Peter Hager at [email protected]