The first time I saw Kiki Layne perform, I was 17 years old. She was playing Oya in a production of “In The Red and Brown Water,” and I was running props backstage. I remember seeing her in this powerful role and thinking, “Wow. She is going to be famous. She has to be.” When I saw that this year, she was starring in Barry Jenkins’ newest feature film, I knew that “If Beale Street Could Talk” would be a must-see movie. I settled into a plush movie theatre seat last week and was drawn into a delicate, honest, and dynamic romantic drama that James Baldwin would have been proud to witness.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” takes place in early 1970’s Harlem, New York City and follows the story of a young black couple embarking on the journey that was typical for black families then, and perhaps even now. Kiki’s silky voice narrates the story from the perspective of Tish (Kiki Layne), a 19-year-old woman, whose lover, Fonny (Stephan James), has just been arrested for a rape he did not commit. While Fonny has become yet another black man persecuted by a petty white cop (Ed Skrien), Tish reveals to their families that she is pregnant with Fonny’s baby. As Fonny awaits trial in jail, Tish tells their story through time hopping between the lighthearted past of their growth from friends to life partners, back to the sobering present task of fighting for Fonny’s freedom.
While the plot points of “Beale Street” aren’t as clear cut as his Oscar winning, “Moonlight”, Barry Jenkins takes his time painting this story with softness; each minute of the film is precious, which directly resembles the preciousness of the love between Tish and Fonny. The flashbacks lift the spirit of the story, highlighting the universal innocence of Tish and Fonny’s tender love, while the present moments hurtle them back to the harsh white world that is contorting their future.
The pacing of the film mimicked the tension that these black families surely felt during this time; waiting and knowing the truth, with no control over what tale is told in the courtroom. Though the progress of the movie is dense and slow moving, the moments of joy scattered throughout paint a full picture of black life. Within the conversations between the two fathers, the fiery loyalty of Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), and the relentlessness of Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King), there is truth in the great love shared between all the black characters, without commodifying their pain. Jenkins and the whole company took care to make love the protagonist, first and foremost. Sharon tells Tish early on to never forget that power, telling her, “Love brought you here.”
Jenkins’ story telling is beautifully met with epic orchestration that combines brassy instruments with the love notes of string instruments. The film had so many scenes between Fonny and Tish that were without dialogue, and the music filled in for the unspoken words between the two lovers. James Baldwin once said, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” In these intimate moments between Tish and Fonny, the masks are fully removed and what the shots capture are the simple faces of two humans, raw, and almost empty of history. They appear as the purest form in these moments where they hold each other’s gaze, with nothing behind their eyes except for openness; the score paints adoration in these spaces, creating what could appear as emptiness into a vessel for full, all-encompassing love.
Lastly, the performances in this movie must be recognized. Kiki Layne is stunning and soft in this breakout role, narrating the story with such calm that her strength shines through without being dominant. She is powerfully female in this role, matching Stephan James’ energy with unrelenting loyalty. Stephan’s portrayal of Fonny is exactly what it must be; kind, wildly intelligent, and deeply afraid. Their connection and love for each other didn’t seem to have an explanation beyond the fact that they had grown up together; but that could be enough for the telling of this story. Love and caring between humans does not have to be passionately justified, or explained; a lesson that perhaps would serve those in the inhumane white power structure well.
However, the standout performances in this movie were Regina King, who played Tish’s mother, and Bryan Tyree Henry as Daniel Carty, a long time friend of Fonny’s and a recent parolee. Regina King’s energy radiates from the screen in every scene in which she is featured. She is fierce in her motherhood, and broken in her failings. Daniel Carty only has two scenes in the movie, but he makes his presence known. In a scene between him and Stephan, he delivers the fear of the white oppressive systems to Fonny on a platter; if Fonny was not afraid before, Daniel surely made him fear greatly after that speech. Bryan takes time to unpeel the front of an innocent, scared, and traumatized human and reveal the truth of what it is to be a black person in America.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” was written and directed by Barry Jenkins, and starred Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Coleman Domingo, and Teyonah Parris.
Copyright © 2018 Paola Sanchez Abreu