If Beale Street Could Talk

Jan 3, 2019

An enduring love story with an unusual complication.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Grade: B+

Director: Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Screenplay: Jenkins, from James Baldwin story.

Cast: Kiki Layne (Captive State), Stephan James (Selma)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 59 min

By: John DeSando

If Beale Street Could Talk is a languorous love story originally from acclaimed author, James Baldwin. Like few other romances on screen, it takes its time developing the deep and enduring love of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James), who has been accused of a rape he did not commit. She is pregnant but not slowed down enough to forsake trying to exonerate her fiancé.

Although this sounds like a thriller, it is mostly not. It is a measured and deeply felt story about the vicissitudes of love for a lovely black couple in the ‘70’s. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins juxtaposes a warmly colorful mise en scene with a grim story not so dark because of the gifted actors making the audience believe they really are in love. Jenkins, no stranger to depicting prison life, parallels the story of Fonny’s eventual fate while the mother of his son faithfully visits him in prison with news of progress on bringing his sad situation to trial.

The film is dominated by the soulful couple but also peppered with a rich variety of African-American life, from her mother, Sharon (Regina King), traveling to Puerto Rico on her future son-in-law’s behalf, to his dad, Frank (Michael Beach), uncertain about how this happened to his family.  The actors are first-rate and their life seemingly authentic. To listen to Fonny’s old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) talk about prison life is to listen to a fine actor gently describing a horror.

If Beale Street Could Talk is strong theater that’s really a film with a story thin on action but laden with love.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at