An Oscars synopsis and review: “If Beale Street Could Talk”


Photos Courtesy of AnnaPurena Pictures, and the

Actors Stephan James and Kiki Layne look out on New York City as Alonzo Hunt and Tish Rivers, respectively, in the 2018 film “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Riley Palmer, Staff Writer

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a warm, welcoming conversation about the beauty and anguish of the African-American experience in the 1970s. Director Barry Jenkins adapted the film from the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, aiming to draw parallels between the struggles of the black community today and in the past.

This year, the Academy nominated the movie for a number of awards: Regina King for Best Supporting Actress, Nicholas Britell for Best Original Score and Jenkins for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Jenkins became a celebrated writer and director in recent years. The Academy nominated Jenkins for Best Director for his film “Moonlight.” He jointly won the award with co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.   

Jenkin’s decision to adapt and direct “If Beale Street Could Talk” came at a perfect time to reflect on the black experience. The black community in America has dealt with oppression, fear and bigotry. In recent years, movements such as Black Lives Matter have given African-Americans a platform to be vocal about their experiences. The public views this novel  as a traditional love story between a black man and a black woman while also providing insight into their struggles. The film adaptation brought Baldwin’s vision to the big screen and a new light to his 1974 novel.

The movie takes place in early 1970s New York City, focusing on the relationship between  19-year-old Tish Rivers played by Kiki Layne, and 22-year-old Alonzo Hunt played by Stephan James. Tish and Alonzo fall deeply in love with each other early on in their lives, but their relationship is tested when Alonzo is arrested and charged for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman named Victoria Rogers. Tish and her family know the accusations are false, as he was with Tish at the time of the assault.  Her testimony is not taken as credible, since she is his girlfriend and the only one who can confirm his alibi on the night in question. With the support of both their families, Tish takes extreme steps to attempt to prove Alonzo’s innocence.

Playing the role of Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers, Regina King is one of the major acting highlights throughout the movie. King’s portrayal of Sharon Rivers is brilliant, making her one of the top contenders for the academy award especially after taking home the Golden Globe for this role. King is able to evoke the strength and vulnerability only a mother in her position could feel. Her  character is able to bear the burdens on Tish’s shoulder in a captivating way that is interesting to watch. King’s performance gets its shining moment when she is faced with the task of traveling to Puerto Rico to track down the woman who accused Alonzo of rape.

The plot of the film is captivating and even stronger is the cinematography. Each scene feels intentional and evokes emotion through color, sound and the strength of the actors. Many scenes include close-up shots of Alonzo and Tish speaking with each other through the glass of a prison visitation room, which are particularly beautiful, even without dialogue. Every color used brings out the striking beauty of black skin. It is a shame the movie was not nominated for the Academy Award for Cinematography, as it deserves recognition in this category.

One of this movie’s more subtle, yet important, triumphs is its score. Nominated in this category for a reason, the score of this movie articulates what Beale Street is trying to say. Each composition compliments the scene it plays behind, sometimes somber and draining, other times joyous, hopeful and a source of optimism. The score predominantly features instruments like trumpets, piano, saxophones and violins harkening back to age of jazz making for a particularly touching vibe.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” has ingenious aspects to it, but one of its major pitfalls is the organization of the plot itself.  The story is told in a nonlinear fashion and serves to help the audience understand the backstory of the characters but only complicates the plot, potentially confusing audiences. Which could be why the film did not receive a nomination for Best Picture, an award that indicates overall achievement in all categories and is always the most anticipated award of the night.

But its timely and poignant message should not be overlooked despite the snub as the film looks closely into the struggles of African-American families fighting the overt oppression and racism of the American prison system, a struggle that is still relevant today. One of the best parts about this film is that it clearly intended for viewers come to their own conclusions on the events they witness and the people they meet in the film.

From the music to the acting to the words of the script itself, this film takes its viewers on an enchanting story filled with tragedy, nuance, optimism and, above all, love.