If “Green Book” is the feel-good movie of the year about racism, then “If Beale Street Could Talk” qualifies as its feel-bad counterpart.
Dark in content, theme and presentation, this drama about a young black couple torn apart when the man is framed for a crime he didn’t commit will leave viewers outraged or despondent — or, likely, both.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ first film since his Oscar-winning “Moonlight” (alas, still better known among mainstream moviegoers for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s colossal announcement flub), it’s adapted from a novel of the same name by the late James Baldwin.
The movie opens with an explanation that while Beale Street is an actual location, its use in this case is symbolic. It represents a place where people of color can gather and freely express themselves without fear of reprisal from a repressive society. “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” we’re told. “Beale Street is our legacy.”
The story is set in Harlem, a place where people are told they are worthless “and everything they see around them reminds of them of that.”
Set in the 1970s, the narrative is not chronological. The film opens with 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) and his 19-year-old pregnant fiancée, Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne), exchanging one last embrace outside the prison where he has been sent on a bogus rape charge. Tish, still under the illusion that his innocence will win out over the color of his skin, assures Fonny that she’s working on his appeal and he will be home soon.
The story jumps around from there. Tish calls a meeting of the two families to announce that she’s pregnant; her family rallies around her, while his curses the news and the fetus. We see how Tish and Fonny fell in love, and the incident between him and a white beat cop (a thankless role played with vile fervor by British actor Ed Skrein) that led to the rape charge.
An undercurrent of hate bubbles throughout. Tish’s family has embraced an us-against-the-world mentality — the world, in this case, being a society controlled by and for the benefit of privileged whites. If the family members occasionally lie, cheat or steal, it’s only because they have seized the opportunity to do it to the oppressors before the oppressors do it to them.
Backed by a haunting soundtrack consisting largely of soft, woeful jazz, most of the scenes take place in dimly lit apartments and on dark streets. One of the few sets with any sort of bright lighting is the prison visiting room, where Tish makes regular trips to encourage Fonny not to lose hope even as hers is being ground away.
She’s not the only one feeling that way. Even the idealistic young lawyer (Finn Wittrock from “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”) she hires — a white man, much to her family’s dismay, whom she thought would have a better chance of working within a bigoted establishment — grows increasingly dispirited.
Help arrives from a surprising source: Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King). Determined that a racist cop not be allowed to ruin her daughter’s life, she takes it upon herself to challenge the system.
The acting is universally strong. That’s to be expected with King, a multiple Emmy winner for “American Crime,” and James, who was in “Selma” and stars opposite Julia Roberts in the Amazon Prime series “Homecoming.” But Layne, a Chicago stage performer, is a wonderful discovery. Tish initially comes off as meek, but as the character unfolds, we realize that her unassuming facade conceals a steely resolve.
The scenes juxtaposing King and Layne are particularly fascinating. Sharon wields her determination like a sledgehammer, while Tish remains subtly understated. At first they appear to be opposites, but we come to realize they’re cut from the same indomitable cloth.
Adding to the intensity is Jenkins’ super-tight framing. As the tension of a scene increases, the camera gradually moves in for extreme close-ups. When Jenkins jumps to a happier scene — Tish and Fonny deciding on an apartment, for instance — the light tone and airy atmosphere are almost shocking.
Watching “If Beale Street Could Talk” could never be described as “fun.” Even “entertaining” is a stretch. But if a powerful kick to your gut’s sense of social justice is what you’re looking for, you can’t do any better.