A failed allegory driven by TAXI DRIVER’S music and TD’s evocative gritty cinematography. Bad acts are okay if you are poor. Writer-director Barry Jenkins follows his sensational Academy Award Best Picture win for MOONLIGHT with IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an adaptation of the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. I understand the importance of bringing Baldwin’s acclaimed novel to a new generation. Jenkins reverence for the material dulls the film.
The love story of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) began when they were children. We see them taking a bath together with their clothes on as 5-year-olds, school mates and now on the cusp of beginning their life together as a couple. These are such good kids, they are about to have sex for the very first time!
They set up a little apartment and begin jobs but then an accusation of a violent rape by a Puerto Rican woman lands Fonny in jail. Tish visits Fonny in jail and, if you have ever visited someone in jail, it’s not like Jenkins has set it up here. Tish tells Fonny she is pregnant and is about to tell her parents. Fonny is at first shocked but then recalls their previous sexual encounters.
At home, Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) and her father Joe (Colman Domingo) are accepting but her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), takes a “Will I have to babysit?” attitude.
Sharon urges Tish to invite Fonny’s parents over to celebrate the news. Even though their children have known each other since they were in kindergarden, Sharon must have forgotten that Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and his sisters Adrienne and Sheila (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) do not approve of Tish. Mrs. Hunt says that Tish is not good enough for her son. It’s strange that Fonny’s mother is called Mrs. Hunt by the Rivers. Haven’t they known each other for a decade? When Mrs. Hunt rages at Tish for getting pregnant, Mr. Hunt (Michael Beach) jumps up and smacks his wife hard. Clearly, this is an established, violent marriage and Mr. Hunt does not have a problem dropping his wife to the floor in front of his daughters and other people in another man’s house. Sharon tells her husband to take Mr. Hunt out for a drink.
Sharon never addresses Mrs. Hunt about the abuse she has just witnessed. No wonder Mrs. Hunt is overly religious. How else can she stay married to Mr. Hunt? Though not intended by Jenkins, I had sympathy for Mrs. Hunt.
Did Tish and Fonny have a secret friendship for 10 years without their parents or siblings knowing anything?
How to pay for Fonny’s lawyer? Joe has an idea. He tells Mr. Hunt they should rob clothing warehouses and DVD players off trucks. Joe ignores the abuse he saw in his own house. Joe’s scheme is completely justifiable to novelist Baldwin and filmmaker Jenkins because Fonny is innocent. It might take years before his case comes to court. He needs a good, expensive lawyer.
The families do not know it, but they are blameless for their crimes because Fonny has been pulled in for a line-up by a racist cop, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). Unfortunately, the only white people in Tish and Fonny’s world are the aforementioned cop and a sleazy man who stops by Tish’s perfume counter.
Now that they have money to pay a lawyer, they need to hire someone to go to Mexico and confront the woman causing all the trouble for Fonny. Was she mistaken when picking Fonny in the line-up? It was dark when the rape occurred. No DNA was taken. Fonny doesn’t have a strong alibi. And, wasn’t he warned by that racist cop?
Sharon, dolled up for some reason, goes to Mexico. Her first stop is to see a man, Pietro Alvarez (Pedro Pascal), who will lead her to the victim.
With all the lovely close-ups of Tish and Fonny, I saw Spike Lee’s “halo-lighting” over their heads. What should have been a love story becomes a political statement with added police violence footage. Lest we forget about slavery – which is still practiced throughout the world. Slavery has been abolished in the western world yet we have ignored its practice elsewhere.* Let’s really cleanse our guilt by wiping it out completely.
Mr. Hunt and Mr. Rogers criminal acts and Mr. Hunt’s domestic violence are not condemned by director Jenkins. The scene of Fonny dumping his job and taking tools he needs that do not belong to him is the third unsavory act of the characters in IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK.
After electrifying fans in the seven episodes he appeared in as bisexual Oberyn Martell in GAME OF THRONES (why, R. R. Martin, did he have to die?), Pascal went on to star in the Netflix’s series NARCOS for three seasons. Carlos Muñoz Portal, a location manager for the series was fatally shot in rural Mexico while scouting filming sites for the show’s fourth season. The fate of the terrific series was in jeopardy. However, Netflix has released NARCOS MEXICO on November 16 with an all new location and cast. Pascal also headlines PROSPECT which opened last week.
*Quartz Africa July 23,2018 reported: Africa just recorded the highest rate of modern-day enslavement in the world. “Armed conflict, state-sponsored forced labor, and forced marriages were the main causes behind the estimated 9.2 million Africans who live in servitude without the choice to do so, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index. And despite these practices being widespread, slavery has remained a largely invisible issue, in part, because it disproportionately affects the most marginalized members of society, such as minorities, women, and children
. Slavery was especially prevalent in Eritrea and Mauritania, where slavery has even been, at times, an institutionalized practice. In Eritrea, for instance, the one-party state of president Isaias Afwerki has overseen a notorious national conscription service accused of drafting citizens for an indefinite period, contributing to the wave of refugees fleeing the country.
The situation is more acute in Mauritania, which has the title of “the world’s last country to abolish slavery.” For centuries, members of the black Haratin group were caught in a cycle of servitude, with the slave status being inherited. Reports have also shown the existence of government collusion with slave owners who intimidate servants who break free from their masters. A January landmark ruling from the African Union stated Mauritania wasn’t doing enough to prosecute and jail the perpetrators of slavery.”
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Victoria Alexander is a member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/. Victoria lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at firstname.lastname@example.org.