In 'If Beale Street Could Talk,' Characters Struggle Against Injustice And Find Hope Through Love

Dec 13, 2018
Originally published on December 14, 2018 4:44 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins is best known for his Oscar-winning film "Moonlight." His new movie "If Beale Street Could Talk" is based on a James Baldwin novel, and it's a love story set in 1970s Harlem. Critic Bob Mondello has this review.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Tish and Fonny are walking hand-in-hand through a park at the film's outset. Childhood soulmates, they have just realized that they're in love. She's 19. He's 22. And on a plaza near the Hudson River, they pause and look into each other's eyes.

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KIKI LAYNE: (As Tish) You ready for this?

STEPHAN JAMES: (As Fonny) I've never been more ready for anything in my whole life.

MONDELLO: They kiss gently, and the moment dissolves. That was then. That was innocence. Tish narrates a startling change as the park fades away.

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LAYNE: (As Tish) I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.

MONDELLO: It's months later, and Fonny is now in jail, set up by a racist cop for a crime he could not have committed. Tish is waiting for him in the visiting room, and when he sees her, his face lights up. She's there to tell him that they're going to have a baby, news that shocks him at first and then has both of them laughing with joy. When he stops laughing and his eyes cloud, Tish presses her hand against the glass.

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LAYNE: (As Tish) You ain't got to worry. And anyway, I'll have you out of here before then.

JAMES: (As Fonny) You sure about that?

LAYNE: (As Tish) I'm always sure about that.

MONDELLO: The moment dissolves again to the time before with Tish remembering how Fonny built a life for himself starting in vocational school, then discovering he could work with wood not to make furniture but to make art.

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LAYNE: (As Tish) The day I realized Fonny was in love with me was strange. It was the day he gave Mama that sculpture.

MONDELLO: Director Barry Jenkins will spend the rest of "Beale Street" toggling between the love story's beginnings and the families in overdrive trying to get Fonny out of jail. It's a rich mix of incident taken from James Baldwin's fifth novel and brought to the screen in ways that are sometimes swoon-worthy, other times humorous, as when Tish's family tussles with Fonny's judgmental mom. A flashback to a scene with a friend just out of jail is so wrenching...

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Some of the things I've seen - be dreaming about it until the day I die.

MONDELLO: ...That it's hard to imagine the film recovering. And then there's dinner and Nina Simone...

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NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Is a kiss...

MONDELLO: ...Hands held, grace said.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) God is great.

MONDELLO: And the struggle waits for another day.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...This food, and we thank...

MONDELLO: Jenkins wrote screenplays for both this film and for his Oscar winner "Moonlight" in 2013 although he didn't have the rights to "Beale Street" back then. His gamble that he'd get them has now paid off in a film shot through with humor, with righteous anger and almost always with just plain beauty - cigarette smoke and sawdust swirling around a sculpture Fonny's creating to the wailing of a saxophone.

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MONDELLO: That the characters must struggle against injustice is "Beale Street's" theme, but both the novel and the movie find hope in the love that Tish and Fonny share, love that actors KiKi Layne and Stephan James portray with such heart-in-your-throat rapture that it's contagious. By the end of "If Beale Street Could Talk," it was me who could barely talk. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.