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'If Beale Street Could Talk' celebrates familial love and condemns racial injustice

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Writer-director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) helms this story based on James Baldwin's novel about Harlem woman Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) trying to clear her fiancé, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), of a crime he didn't commit while carrying their first child. (119 min.)

UNBREAKABLE Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and her fiancé, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), find their bond tested by a racist and unjust system. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANNAPURNA PICTURES
  • Photos Courtesy Of Annapurna Pictures
  • UNBREAKABLE Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and her fiancé, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), find their bond tested by a racist and unjust system.

Glen If you want a reminder of all the ways the deck is stacked against black people in the U.S., this is the film. It lays out the systemic racism, lack of education and opportunity, unfair policing, mass incarceration, discriminatory housing, social caste system, and destructive policies that plague black communities. The story is set in the early '70s, and it'd be nice to think we've overcome these issues, but what novelist and social critic James Baldwin wrote about 44 years ago is just as prevalent today. The story's an infuriating indictment of American culture, deftly handled by Jenkins, whose last feature-length film, Moonlight, deservedly took home the 2017 Best Picture Academy Award. What's amazing about the film and book is it's also a complicated and tender love story, a celebration of black family life, and an optimistic clarion call that despite the horrors piled upon the black community, there's an unstoppable nobility there. When Tish tells her family that she's pregnant out of wedlock, her sister, Ernestine (Tayonah Parris), says, "Don't you hang your head. Lift your chin up!" There's no shame in suffering indignities brought upon you by an oppressor, and if Tish's fiancé, Fonny, hadn't been falsely accused of rape instead of sitting in jail, he and Tish would be married and starting a family. At its center, this is a tragic story of a couple forced apart by an uncaring and broken system designed to perpetuate on the black community all the things it accuses the black community of, but Tish's family is too strong, too loving, and too proud to give up. I left the theater both furious at our culture and amazed by Baldwin's and Jenkins' narrative gifts.

Anna If Beale Street Could Talk is nothing short of heartbreaking—a story you desperately hope will turn out differently but inevitably cannot and remain truthful, so the audience is left to wallow in the injustice of it all. Fonny and Tish are a classic story of young love—raised in the same neighborhood, friends since either can remember, and soon young lovers whose world of possibility shoots like sparks from their eyes when they look at each other. They don't have much, but they have each other. While Tish's family is loving and supportive, Fonny's holy roller mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and condescending sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne) think he's far too good for Tish and that she's led him down a dark path. Fonny's father, Frank (Michael Beach), tries to be the bridge between the two families when Tish breaks the news that Fonny will soon be a father, but his quick anger and Mrs. Hunt's holier-than-thou attitude crash into a messy scene that leaves the celebration tainted with violence. The film vacillates between Fonny's time in jail awaiting trial, Tish's pregnancy, and flashbacks to their budding relationship and plans for the future. We watch as Fonny becomes a shell of himself, gaunt and broken as his trial gets pushed further and further away and as hope and money quickly diminish. It's a beautiful story of enduring love, yet equally devastating as their hope for a happy life is slowly and constantly ground down by the unfair, racist society surrounding them. Like Moonlight, this is not to be missed.

SUPPORT SYSTEM Tish's (KiKi Lane, center) sister, Ernestine (Tayonah Parris, left), and mother, Sharon (Regina King, right), give her what she needs to carry on in the face of injustice. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANNAPURNA PICTURES
  • Photos Courtesy Of Annapurna Pictures
  • SUPPORT SYSTEM Tish's (KiKi Lane, center) sister, Ernestine (Tayonah Parris, left), and mother, Sharon (Regina King, right), give her what she needs to carry on in the face of injustice.

Glen The scene you describe is pivotal and depicts a black community pitted against itself. The social caste system, with Mrs. Hunt thinking her family is somehow superior to the Rivers family, is one of the ways the white power structure keeps communities of color in check. Likewise, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), the Hispanic woman who was raped, is directed by the police to pick Fonny out of a lineup even though she can't identify him as the rapist. She's told he did it, so she says he did it. She's no freer to do the right thing than Fonny is free to effectively defend himself against the false charges. Tish and one of Fonny's friends, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), may have been with Fonny at the time of the rape, but Tish is his fiancée and Daniel is an ex-con, so neither alibi means anything. The police have the power, and Rogers' violation is doubled by dragging an innocent man into the mess. The only obvious villain in it all is Officer Bell (a marvelously malevolent Ed Skrein), who saw Fonny thrash a white man for harassing Tish but couldn't arrest him because too many witnesses saw the truth. I'm still infuriated days later thinking about the injustice of it all. Tish's and Fonny's fathers even turn to petty crime to make enough money to send Tish's mother, Sharon (a fierce and riveting Regina King), to Puerto Rico to implore Rogers to tell the truth and save Fonny. These men aren't criminals, but the story shows the lengths they'll go to save their kids from heartache. We're writing this on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and it seems appropriate to quote him: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." That's this film's message, too.

Anna Skrein is fantastic as the racist and crooked cop. His hate is abundantly clear from his encounter with Fonny, and his promise to "see you around" haunts the young couple when Officer Bell comes upon a crime to pin on him. All of the performances are masterful. Jenkins is a gem at casting. These actors evoke layers upon layers of depth into these characters—no role is small even if brief. In one scene, Daniel is over for dinner with Tish and Fonny, and while Tish is busy in the kitchen, Daniel starts to tell Fonny about his recent stint in jail. He was falsely accused of stealing a car and had a little pot on him at the time. So which do you take, the theft you didn't commit or the drug charge that will put you away for longer? There's no right answer, and the justice system chews up young black men and spits them out with nothing but a record and a chip on their shoulder. Blatant racism isn't justice, and with the preponderance of those incarcerated being black men, the problems of 44 years ago are obviously still rampant today. This is an important film, one that will no doubt haunt me. I can't wait to see what Jenkins give us next. Δ

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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