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Unpleasantly Familiar in Memphis and Beyond: If Beale Street Could Talk

Updated on February 9, 2019


Not one second of If Beale Street Could Talk takes place on that famed Memphis road. The opening moments of the film, which quotes author James Baldwin, state that Beale Streets exist all over America, as do a lack of equal rights in places like there. The movie based on Baldwin's novel takes place in 1970s New York. Two lifelong friends, Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), decide they want to have a life together. In fact, Tish learns that she is about to become a first-time parent with Fonny. Her mother, Sharon (Regina King), assures Tish that she and Tish's sister will help take care of the baby. While the Rivers family takes this news well, the Hunt women, especially Fonny's devoutly religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), react angrily. The one Hunt person who doesn't take the news negatively is Fonny's father, Frank (Michael Beach), who promises to work with Tish's father, Joseph (Colman Domingo) to do more to provide for their growing family. In a search to find a place to live, Tish and Fonny work with Levy (Dave Franco), a landlord planning to convert an old warehouse into an apartment complex.

The couple's dreams of a life together take a turn, though, when Fonny is arrested and charged with rape. The victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), positively identifies him as her attacker. Even though it seems highly unlikely that Fonny committed the crime, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), claims Fonny is the man he chased before he eventually apprehended him. While the Rivers family hires an attorney named Hayward (Finn Wittrock) to represent Fonny, they learn the case is strong against Fonny on the IDs alone. Fonny's one alibi witness, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), is himself a convicted felon. Before the trial, Victoria leaves New York for her native Puerto Rico. Sharon learns where Victoria went, and attempts to see the young woman in an effort to learn what really happened.


If Beale Street Could Talk marks the first film that director Barry Jenkins has made since his 2016 picture, Moonlight, took home the top prize at the Oscars. Jenkins also wrote the screenplay, which never passes final judgment on Fonny's guilt or innocence. Rather, Jenkins provides a thoughtful examination of a situation faced by too many men just like Fonny, who find themselves in circumstances almost impossible to overcome because the cases against them seem to cast no doubt. Fonny had, in another situation, been accused by police of starting a fight inside a store, and was going to be arrested until the store owner set the record straight. The incarceration of Fonny and many others like him is far too familiar, as the ideal of swift justice does leave doubt in its usage. Time and resources on both sides are far too limited, and continuations make the preparations far longer than any trial would take. Meanwhile, Fonny struggles to remain upbeat behind bars.

The film has strong performances, especially from Layne, James, and King. Layne, as Tish, serves as the movie's narrator. She also knows the odds against Fonny proving his innocence are remote. She decides to remain upbeat for the sake of the family she will take the lead in raising. She looks forward to the day to the day when she and Fonny can be together all the time, as they once had been. James, as Fonny, is a skilled woodworker as well as a devoted partner. The crimes for which he stands accused would be out of character for him, as he and Tish focus on the changes life promises to bring them. King leads the support as Sharon, the mother who will do anything within her power to prove her belief that Fonny is not guilty. She believes unconditionally in the young people who are about to make her a grandmother, and she wants that family to be together.


If Beale Street Could Talk does not dwell on the negative, for that does not help take care of all concerns in the here and now. The movie demonstrates how the legal process works for those who are underserved and perceived as criminals and potential criminals. The law may have a point in the case presented here, but said case is anything but open and shut. Meanwhile, Fonny Hunt comes to embrace the unconditional support that he has, all of them believing that he committed no crime. It's that belief that holds these loved ones together, even if this belief is all they can ever offer.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give If Beale Street Could Talk 3.5 stars. This is how the wheels of justice too often work.

If Beale Street Could Talk trailer

© 2019 Pat Mills


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