The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


If Beale Street Could Talk

Director Barry Jenkins follows up Moonlight with an adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, and as good as that Best Picture winner was, this one might be even better. Half of it is a romance, while the other half is social commentary. What's so pleasing is that Jenkins marries those two halves perfectly. He's far too accomplished a filmmaker to resort to preachiness. Instead, he takes the heart of Baldwin's tale -- which was published in 1974 but remains incredibly relevant today -- and wraps it in humanity, ensuring that every ounce of its power transfers to the screen.

Relative newcomer Kiki Layne gives a mesmerizing I am here! performance as Tish Rivers, a pregnant young woman desperately trying to get her fiancee, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), out of jail. He's being held for a crime he didn't commit. Tish gets support from her mother Sharon (Regina King) and father Joseph (Coleman Domingo). Fonny's super-religious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), on the other hand, blames Tish for bringing a child into the world out of wedlock and, indirectly, for her son's legal troubles.

The film weaves flashbacks showing how the romance between Tish and Fonny developed with present-day scenes in which she tries to track down his accuser, in the hopes that the woman can be convinced to recant. All the while, she visits Fonny in jail, where she can see his optimism slowly start to fade.

If Beale Street Could Talk is an affecting examination of the over-incarceration of young black men. Fonny is a good person who has no business being in jail, yet here he is anyway, a victim of the convenient, racist societal finger-pointing that says it doesn't matter if you have the right black man, just so long as it's a black man. Over the course of the film, we see how this wrongful imprisonment threatens to change him. How can you remain a hopeful person when the system so clearly doesn't care about you?

The answer, obviously, is through love, which Fonny and Tish have plenty of. That he tries to hold on during his ordeal is a testament to the bond between them. By thoroughly depicting the genesis of their romance, Jenkins guarantees that scenes in the present have even more impact. These young lovers clearly do not deserve what they're going through, but they are determined to go through it together, no matter what. We hold our collective breath, hoping for the best possible outcome.

If Beale Street Could Talk works so magnificently because Jenkins is dedicated to emotional precision. Every moment is deeply observant -- the way Fonny gradually accepts that he might be railroaded into a lengthy stay behind bars, the fear Tish has that her unborn child will grow up without a father around full-time, the way intense love between the couple pulls them through a difficult time. All these dynamics feel authentic, as do the ones involving the supporting characters, each of whom has his or her own perspective on the situation.

A marvelous cast adds incrementally to the film's success. Kiki Layne shows how Tish takes on responsibility for Fonny's well-being. She knows nothing will be the same if she can't get him sprung, so she continues to prop him up while silently crumbling inside. Stephan James, meanwhile, hits the right balance between Fonny feeling angry over his unfair arrest and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Regina King is outstanding in a supporting role, capturing the manner in which Sharon attempts to hold the family together in the midst of a crisis. Hands down, this is one of the best-acted movies of the year.

By the time it reaches its touching conclusion, If Beale Street Could Talk has said something profound. Baldwin wrote, "Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy." That quote appears onscreen at the beginning, and the film stays true to the theme. It's also a heartfelt love story. That Jenkins ties everything together so seamlessly and entertainingly is further proof that he's one of the most exciting directors working today.

( out of four)

If Beale Street Could Talk is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.

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