If Beale Street Could Talk review: "A superlative slice of ’70s social realism"

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Another beautifully played, gorgeously photographed snapshot of the African-American experience.

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The novels of James Baldwin were shamefully under-explored during his lifetime. So Barry Jenkins’ faithful interpretation of Baldwin’s 1974 love story goes some way towards addressing this slight, even if it will be the success of Jenkins’ Best Picture-winner Moonlight (rather than, say, Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain) that pulls people in. 

The Beale Street everybody knows is a historic thoroughfare in Memphis that will forever be associated with the blues. Jenkins’ film, though, begins in Harlem, the home of both 19-year-old Tish (radiant newcomer KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James from Race and Homecoming), her childhood friend turned lover. Tish, newly pregnant, longs to build a home with Fonny, a talented sculptor. 

Yet her beau is in the slammer, having been accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman he says he’s never met. The story’s bare bones are quickly established in a film that then leisurely unfolds in opposite directions, using flashbacks to show the foundations of the central relationship while charting Tish’s efforts to curtail her partner’s unjust incarceration. Along the way, Jenkins stages some splendid sequences, chief among them a domestic set-piece in which Tish’s announcement of her impending arrival prompts a withering reaction from Fonny’s religious zealot of a mother (Aunjanue Ellis). 

Tish’s own mum, in contrast, is a paragon of tenderness and tolerance, as shown by her taking a trip to San Juan to exhort Fonny’s accuser to reverse her testimony. Played by the majestic Regina King, Sharon typifies the film’s overarching idea that love is really our only defence against life’s vicissitudes, not to mention the institutional bigotry (embodied by Ed Skrein’s vindictive police officer, the racist behind the trumped-up rape charge) that stops people like Fonny getting ahead. 

Working with regular DoP James Laxton, Jenkins swaddles the young lovebirds’ burgeoning romance in a ravishing soft-focus shimmer that makes their later meetings amidst the grubby greens of a prison visiting room all the more heartbreaking. 

He also draws fine performances from his cast, Teyonah Parris bringing a ferocious militancy to Tish’s tough-talking sibling and Widows’ Brian Tyree Henry offering priceless support as an old pal of Fonny’s still smarting from the memory of a recent stint behind bars. Only Dave Franco lets the side down, his oddball cameo as a kindly Jewish landlord constituting the sole misstep of note in an otherwise superlative slice of ’70s social realism.

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  • Release date: Out now (US)/February 8, 2019 (UK)
  • Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
  • Running time: 119 mins

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Freelance Writer

Neil Smith is a freelance film critic who has written for several publications, including Total Film. His bylines can be found at the BBC, Film 4 Independent, Uncut Magazine, SFX Magazine, Heat Magazine, Popcorn, and more.