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If Beale Street Could Talk


Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal

Director: Barry Jenkins

Rather than take that all-too-frequently-used and not always 100 percent true critical cop-out, I'll admit It.

I haven't read James Baldwin's celebrated novel that serves as the inspiration for writer-director Jenkins' serendipitous follow-up to his deservedly Oscar-winning 2017 film Moonlight. So - until I get around to reading the novel (which I should like to, time permitting) - what follows is a review of Jenkins' film which grippingly - and all-too-frequently and deservedly depressingly - charts the apparently never-to-be-accomplished battle by a pregnant African-American woman and her family to prove her child's wrongly'imprisoned father is innocent.

Cult literary icon Baldwin - himself born in Beale Street in New Orleans - stated 'Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy'.

Jenkins' film hits hard and credibly today simply because the intrinsic racialism that was prevalent in the United States when Baldwin's novel was published in 1974 remains as potent as ever, as we follow the fates of Jenkins' two central protagonists - young Tish (KiKi Layne), happily pregnant by her childhood love Fonny (Stephan James) - whose expectation of happiness shrivels and dies when he is falsely accused of rape and jailed, leaving Tish and her parents fighting to clear him.

Says Jenkins: 'I was really excited about two things: one, before I read it, I didn't realise it was basically like James Baldwin writing a thriller, which I thought was cool. Then I was really moved by how romantic it is on one hand, and then how biting it is on the other.'

And Jenkins, very well served by strong performances by genuine actors rather than box-office serving stars, succeeds memorably in transforming a basic narrative that could so easily have been simply mushy and predictable into a compelling and insidiously depressing true-life drama whose credible storytelling and potent performances are perfectly complemented by James Laxton's atmospheric cinematography om location in in New York and Harlem.

There are many times when Jenkins' film is quite uncomfortable to watch but, thanks in large measure to strong casting and fine performances throughout, it is never tedious and ultimately eminently worthwhile, both as justified polemic and as fine filmmaking.

Alan Frank

USA 2018. UK Distributor: eOne. Colour.
119 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 2, Swearing 3.

Review date: 17 Feb 2019