Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) are a young black couple expecting the first child. Their future together is far from certain as Fonny has been falsely imprisoned for rape. With the entire system rigged against Fonny, Tish and her family must find a way to free Fonny as resources and hope dwindle.
Barry Jenkins has rendered yet another powerful vision of young love under pressure. The sheer powerlessness of the black characters in the film is terrifying. One of the most moving moments involves an old friend of Fonny’s talking about the overwhelming fear he has felt since experiencing first hand the prejudice in the system. Kiki Layne is powerfully affecting as the hopeful young woman who must find the strength to fight the entire world.
The deterioration of Fonny is perhaps understated but is nevertheless devastating. Stephen James is charismatic throughout, but his heartbreak is palpable. The film simultaneously tells the story of Tish and Fonny building their new lives together with Kiki’s desperate attempts to free her lover. The subtle menace of authority in the former (Ed Skrein’s hideous cop) is overpowering in the latter. A full, warm vision is painted of this love these lives that are torn apart.
The characters of the film are beautifully realized, particularly Tish’s family. Teyonah Parris is her fierce sister Ernestine, with a sharp tongue but deep love for her sister. Regina King plays her mother Sharon as quiet and considered but when provoked, unmovable. Colman Domingo is her father Joseph and has an easy charm. The way the family interacts with each other and the world around them is natural and hugely enjoyable, making their hardships all the harder to bear.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a powerful and provocative adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. It’s a richly told story of humanity and inhumanity. It’s a bold story of hope and fear, but what sticks with you is the heart.