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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Tragic Romance
by James Colt Harrison

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a celebrated African-American writer. Born in Harlem, he discovered his love for writing when he was a teen-ager. He wrote his first article for the school newspaper when he was only 13. He hung around Greenwich Village and got odd jobs writing short stories, essays and book reviews. Some of these were later collected into his “Notes on a Native Son” (1955).

Baldwin was disturbed by all the prejudices against blacks in America. He experienced it personally. He also realized he was gay at age 18 or so. He felt that perhaps he could live his life in a more creative environment in Europe. At 24 he moved to Paris and immersed himself in the artistic and creative community. Baldwin liked to delve into the psychological pressures facing African Americans as well as gay and bisexual men. His second novel, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956) caused a sensation because of its gay themes and characters. It became an instant hit and classic. He also liked to explore the daily lives of blacks in America and as such wrote the novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” in 1970. It is this book on which the film is based, with a new script by director Barry Jenkins.

The film is really a tragic romance and about the injustice shown to back men. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) grew up together as kids. They played together, went to school together, and even took bubble baths together as only innocent children can. Now they are grown up and want to get married.

Fonny, who is as handsome as a model, loves Trish so very much. He is a gentle-as-can-be first lover to her. He treats her with respect and tenderness during their initial love scene. Being both heathy and vigorous human specimens, Trish becomes pregnant. The two are happy and over the moon about the coming baby and want to begin life as man and wife.

Sometimes the script for real life does not follow the dreams of people.  Fonny was unjustly accused of raping a woman during a dark night. The woman picked Fonny out of a police lineup, but he was innocent. He didn’t do it and wasn’t capable of such a violent act. Fonny’s nature is that of being sweet and gentle, and both Tish and her mother Sharon knew it.

Fonny was sent to prison, and actor James looks as perplexed as the rest of us. He knows he didn’t do it, but he is almost resigned to spending the rest of his life in prison without his girl and their new baby to come. Tish, played by mousy newcomer KiKi Layne, is almost catatonic in her reactions.

The real fire comes from her mother Sharon, played by terrific actress Regina King. She loves her soon-to-be son-in-law and intends to spring him from prison by getting the rape victim to admit that it wasn’t Fonny who did the dastardly deed. Sharon shows a lot of spunk and determination and feels sure she is right about Fonny. The rape victim in question disappears, but Sharon finds the woman has returned to her native Dominican Republic. Ms. King has a dramatic part that makes her stand out and could very well earn her an Oscar® nomination in the Best Supporting Actress Category. Scenes shot in the Dominican Republic are hair-raising as the victim is a product of her squalid environment and goes off the deep end emotionally.

Much of the dialogue is lifted from Baldwin’s novel and gets massaged into Jenkins new script. But injustices Baldwin felt as a black man growing up in the Bronx are all in the film, and the audience feels empathy for Fonny and his unfair situation. This is one of the finest films of the year and deserves viewing by movie fans.

(Released by Annapurna Pictures/ Plan B Entertainment/ PASTEL and rated “R” for language and some sexual content.)

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