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"IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK"
(2018) (Kiki Layne, Stephan James) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A young, unmarried couple must contend with her being pregnant while he's in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
PLOT:
Clementine "Tish" Rivers (KIKI LAYNE) and Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (STEPHAN JAMES) have known each other since they were young kids, but they're now unmarried lovers. Complicating matters is that she's now pregnant while he's in prison for a crime he didn't commit. And that's of raping Victoria Rogers (EMILY RIOS), who's been convinced by white racist Officer Bell (ED SKREIN) that Fonny is the perpetrator despite him having been hanging out with his friend, Daniel Carty (BRIAN TYREE HENRY), at the time of the violent crime.

Tish's parents, Sharon (REGINA KING) and Joseph (COLMAN DOMINGO), and sister, Ernestine (TEYONAH PARRIS), are excited by the news but concerned about Fonny being imprisoned. That sentiment is shared by his father, Frank (MICHAEL BEACH), but not his highly religious mother, Alice (AUNJANUE ELLIS), or sisters, Adrienne (EBONY OBSIDIAN) and Sheila (DOMINIQUE THORNE).

As the story goes back and forth through time from the present back to when Tish and Fonny became an item, she and her family try to do what they can to prove Fonny's innocence and get him out of prison.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When it comes to "men in prison" movies, there are all sorts of directions they can go in terms of story. Some are about the simple, but trying experience of being locked up. Others revolve around attempts to break out. And many more focus on the legal attempts by lawyers to get those wrongly imprisoned out via some sort of research and courtroom presentation means.

Just a few minutes into "If Beale Street Could Talk," most viewers will probably assume it's going to be the latter. After all, we're quickly told by the narrator, Clementine "Tish" Rivers (KiKi Layne), that her boyfriend, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), is in prison and she's now found herself pregnant by him.

Most would naturally believe that since she states he's innocent -- of supposedly raping a Puerto Rican woman in New York -- and considering the race against time before she gives birth, we're going to be witnessing some sort of legal procedural about her and their lawyer's attempts to get him out.

While a little bit of that is present, the film -- based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin (which I have not read and am not familiar) -- is far more interested in simply being a love story, albeit one with extraneous circumstances that have interrupted, sidelined and physically separated that romance.

And rather than tell that tale in a straightforward, linear fashion, writer/director Barry Jenkins (the Oscar-nominated director of the Oscar-winning movie "Moonlight") has decided to jump around and back and forth through time as Tish narrates their story.

While there really isn't much to the plot beyond snippets of childhood friends falling in love and becoming a couple, her visiting him in prison, a strained get-together between their parents upon learning of her pregnancy, and some other flashback moments, it's nevertheless all done in a way that's fairly hypnotizing.

No doubt much of that can be attributed to the strong performances from all involved (including Regina King as Tish's mother who gets the meatiest of the immediate family parts), the dialogue they've been given to speak by Jenkins, the terrific score by Nicholas Britell, and the gorgeous cinematography courtesy of James Laxton.

Jenkins also occasionally goes the Spike Lee route of showing additional instances of racial injustice -- via still photographs of white cops beating up or otherwise manhandling young black men -- to highlight the justice and prison system that continues -- like it did back when Baldwin published his novel -- to sweep up young men of color disproportionately in terms of overall population percentage. Thankfully, though, it never feels as heavy-handed as Lee often gets.

And one can certainly say that about the entire production. While it covers some tough subject matter and an equally tough situation involving the two main characters, it's all done with a deft touch that gives it far more romantic heart than one might have initially expected considering the basic storyline.

Good all around, "If Beale Street Could Talk" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 30, 2018 / Posted December 25, 2018


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