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REVIEW: "If Beale Street Could Talk"

By Eric Hillis,

originally published: 12/22/2018

REVIEW: "If Beale Street Could Talk"

Outside of cinephile circles, filmmaker Barry Jenkins is perhaps best known for his role in arguably the greatest debacle in the history of the Academy Awards. On February 26th, 2017, La La Land was mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner, only for it then to be revealed that Jenkins’ Moonlight was the actual winner.

There’s a certain irony to the award being momentarily given to La La Land, a movie about Jazz that seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the essence of Jazz, given Jenkins’ followup to his Oscar winner takes its name from the Memphis street that played a pivotal role in the formation of America’s true art form. La La Land’s misunderstanding of Jazz is best illustrated in a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s pianist behaves like a petulant child when asked to play Christmas carols at the restaurant where he’s employed to entertain diners. Any Jazz musician worth their salt would jump at the challenge of stamping their own trademark on a Christmas standard, and most of the greats recorded at least one seasonal album during their careers. Jazz is the art of taking something that exists and making it your own, finding beauty in the mundane and the miserable.

Fonny (Stephan James), the young African-American protagonist of Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, isn’t a Jazz musician - he’s a sculptor - but he understands Jazz a lot more than Gosling’s petulant piano man. Fonny takes misshapen lumps of wood and turns them into artworks, chiselling away at discarded matter to discover the beauty within. A friend mocks his work - he doesn’t understand it, and frankly neither do I, but I understand Fonny’s motives, and so does Jenkins. In the basement of the Harlem home of his girlfriend Tish’s (KiKi Layne) family, Fonny finds a release from the pressure of his daily existence. In one lovingly filmed scene, Fonny steps back and admires a piece he’s crafted. To those of us who aren’t familiar with abstract sculpting, it just looks like a misshapen lump of wood. It may not make sense to us, but it makes sense to Fonny, and ultimately that’s all that matters.

REVIEW: "If Beale Street Could Talk"

Fonny and Tish’s world is turned upside down when, not long after the latter reveals she is carrying their child, the former is arrested, accused of the rape of a Puerto Rican immigrant. The pair use geography to prove Fonny’s innocence - he was arrested in an area of New York he couldn’t possibly have gotten to at that time if he had been involved in the assault - but nobody wants to listen to reason from two young black kids in ‘70s New York. With Fonny behind bars awaiting trial, Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) embark on a crusade to have his name cleared.

The premise may make If Beale Street Could Talk sound like a legal drama, but it’s actually much more of a romance. In fact, it’s one of the most romantic movies to come out of American cinema in quite some time. Jenkins devotes the bulk of his film to Fonny and Tish in the weeks leading up to the former’s arrest, his camera simply hanging out with them as they bask in each other’s presence, and he really sells the sense that these two people belong together.

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The more we see of the happiness Fonny and Tish bring one another, the more ominous the film becomes, reflected in Nicholas Brittell’s stunning Jazz influenced score, which like Bernard Herrmann’s work on Taxi Driver, takes the soothing warmth of Jazz and occasionally corrupts it with a brooding undercurrent. The suggestion is that moments of beauty should be savoured, for darkness is never far away.

There are few things more affecting in movies than moments of human kindness. In a time when doing so took even more bravery than today, three white people come to the aid of Fonny and Tish in their own ways - a young lawyer (Finn Wittrock) who takes a personal interest in Fonny’s case, a young landlord who rents out a loft to the couple when nobody else would, and an elderly Eastern European woman who intervenes when a cop (Ed Skrein) attempts to arrest Fonny for defending his girlfriend from an assault - but they never feel like ‘white saviour’ archetypes, they’re simply good people doing the right thing when so few others will. Notably, all three are coded as Jewish, and in the case of the latter, you wonder if maybe she’s alive because somebody stood between her and a man in uniform three decades earlier. Jews played a significant role in the birth of Jazz too - Louis Armstrong credited his life and career to the family of Lithuanian Jews who took him in as a child, and he wore a Star of David around his neck throughout his life in recognition - and like African-Americans, they know that no matter how bright today is, darkness is never far away.

If Beale Street Could Talk is about people stuck in a horrific situation, but never feeling sorry for themselves, carrying hope in their hearts and finding beauty wherever they can. That’s the essence of Jazz. It’s dark now, but brightness is never far away.

If Beale Street Could Talk - 4 ½ stars out of 5


Directed by:  Barry Jenkins; Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco

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Black Maria Film Festival To Kick Off 38th Annual Tour On February 9
(PRINCETON, NJ) -- The Black Maria Film Festival will kick off its 38th annual tour with a screening of five award-winning films on Saturday, February 9 at the James Stewart Film Theater at 185 Nassau Street. The screening will begin at 7:30pm, preceded by a pre-screening reception at 7:00pm. Some of the filmmakers and Festival Director Jane Steuerwald will be at the screening to discuss the films being shown. The event is free and open to the public; no tickets are required.
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(HOPEWELL, NJ) -- Hopewell Theater will host a special “date night” celebration of Valentine’s Day with a screening of the classic romance film Casablanca paired with an optional Moroccan supper on Valentine's Day, Thursday, February 14. An undisputed masterpiece and perhaps Hollywood's quintessential statement on love and romance, Casablanca has only improved with age, boasting career-defining performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
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Mimi Vang Olsen: Pet Portraitist
Within two minutes, I knew I wanted to write about Mimi Vang Olsen: Pet Portraitist.  It’s a wonderful film - just over a half hour long - that chronicles the last West Village painter with her own storefront as she enters the lives of several eccentric clients and immortalizes their pets.  
How They Got Over: An Interview With Robert Clem
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Event calendar
Thursday, Jan 24, 2019

"Apple Season" by E.M. Lewis @ New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch - 8:00pm

American Theater Group: Tell Them I’m Still Young @ South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), South Orange - 7:30pm

Some Girl(s) @ Studio Playhouse Upper Montclair, Upper Montclair - 8:00pm


Josh Gates Live! @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 7:30pm

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