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If Beale Street Could Talk
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that If Beale Street Could Talk is writer-director Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's love story set in early 1970s Harlem. Starring KiKi Layne and Stephan James as young lovers Tish and Fonny, the movie is equal parts romance, family drama, and crime story about the injustices faced by African Americans. Expect strong language ("f--k," "c--t," "s--t," the "N" word, and more) and a few sex scenes (with some quick partial nudity), as well as police corruption and many discussions of institutional racism. Violence includes a confrontation between Fonny and another man, as well as a moment of domestic abuse when a man strikes his wife for saying something hateful. A rape victim feels threatened by someone's presence and begins to yell and cry. The movie's themes are heavy but still relevant (and most appropriate) for adults and older teens -- some of whom might be reading Baldwin in high school. Plus, it has valuable messages about the power of unconditional love and the importance of people who will support and protect you.
What's the story?
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is writer-director Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's same-named 1974 novel about young lovers forced to overcome unexpected -- yet universal -- struggles in 1970s Harlem. Nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), who grew up together, are completely in love and planning to get married. But their relationship takes a heartbreaking turn when Fonny is falsely accused of rape by a woman who's fled back to her native Puerto Rico. After Fonny is jailed to await trial, Tish discovers she's pregnant. While her parents (Regina King, Colman Domingo) and older sister (Teyonah Parris) -- along with Fonny's father (Michael Beach) -- are supportive, Fonny's devout mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian, Domnique Thorne) are mortified. The film shifts back and forth in time to tell the highs and lows of Tish and Fonny's love story against the backdrop of institutional racism, injustice, and incarceration.
Is it any good?
This beautifully acted, lovingly adapted drama about love, family, and (in)justice in America deserves a wide audience. King is especially wonderful as Tish's patient, wise mother, Sharon, who not only embraces and guides her daughter through an unexpected pregnancy but also travels all the way to Puerto Rico to track down the woman who falsely accused Fonny. But it's not just King who's outstanding -- all the performances in If Beale Street Could Talk are nuanced, from Layne's and James' central young couple to much smaller but evocative roles, like Ellis as the angry, judgmental, and religious Mrs. Hunt, Parris as Tish's take-charge sister, and the two different but bonding grandfathers-to-be, played by Domingo and Beach. The gifted cast is even graced by tiny but powerful performances from Dave Franco, Diego Luna, and Brian Tyree Henry as, respectively, a likable landlord and two of Fonny's friends.
Jenkins tells Tish and Fonny's story with frequent flashbacks, sharing everything from their earliest memories to all of their important firsts. Composer Nicholas Britell's evocative, jazzy score perfectly complements the drama and romance. The movie, like the novel, doesn't shy away from uncomfortable conversations and themes -- the scene in which Tish reveals her pregnancy to Fonny's family and one later, when it's clear that the incarcerated Fonny is losing help, are particularly gut-wrenching. But through it all, Fonny and Tish remain steadfastly surrounded by their love and the love of her family. Despite everything they must overcome, Fonny and Tish's love is real and enduring -- and a beautiful thing to behold.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the messages in If Beale Street Could Talk. What does the movie have to say about justice, love, and the American dream? How have things changed since the time Baldwin wrote the novel? How haven't they?
How are love and sex discussed and depicted? Is sex loving and consensual? What values are imparted? How do Mrs. Rivers' and Mrs. Hunt's reactions to the pregnancy and baby differ? Which grandmother do you agree with, and why?
Those familiar with Baldwin's book: What are some changes between the novel and the movie? Which ones did you like? Was there anything you felt was missing?
What do you think of the line "I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass"? What does it mean? What are Baldwin and the filmmakers trying to say about America's justice system?
Who do you consider a role model in the movie? What character strengths do they display?
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