December 17, 2018 – This film, based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, resonates as much today as it did when the novel was first published, over 40 years ago, which is tragic, like this story. The title of Baldwin's book, is a reference to a 1916 blues song, “Beale Street Blues.” The story itself, however is not set in New Orleans, or on Beale Street, where Louis Armstrong, and James Baldwin's father were born. It is set in Harlem, New York City.
The movie opens with the intertitle quote from Baldwin's book, saying “Every black person in America was born on Beale Street ... Beale Street is our legacy.” Beale street is any black neighborhood in any American City, be it Jackson, Mississippi or Harlem.
Nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers (played by KiKi Layne of the “Chicago Med” TV series) and 22-year-old Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James of “Selma”) have been friends since childhood, but now are lovers. Tish has an announcement to make to her family, which sets off a lot of drama. She is pregnant, and the father is Fonny. The two are unmarried, and Fonny is stuck in jail, falsely accused of rape.
Tish's parents are shocked at this development, but they are supportive of Tish. Tish's mother, Sharon (Regina King of the “Seven Seconds” mini-series) decides to invite Lonny's parents to the house so they can hear the news right away. This works out pretty well until Fonny's self-righteous, intolerantly religious mother, who never liked Tish all that much to start with, attacks Tish's character and says she has ruined Lonny's life. That does not go over well.
Tish's family becomes defensive and there is a near fight as Tish's sister, Ernestine Rivers (Teyonah Parris of “Chi-Raq”) goes up against Fonny's sister, who is about to pick a fight with Tish. Ernesting makes it crystal clear what will happen if anyone lays a hand on Tish. It will be war. Tish's father (Colman Domingo) and Fonny's father (Michael Beach) however, seem to get along just fine. Together, the two hatch a plan to raise money to get Fonny out of jail
The romance between Tish and Fonny is shown in a series of flashbacks, as is the trouble that lands Fonny in jail, after a run-in with a racist cop. The families both raise money to send Tish's mother to Puerto Rico to talk to a key witness in the rape case against Fonny. The results are ambiguous. Fonny ends up in legal limbo forcing him to into choices that are all bad, and unjust.
There are some plot departures from the book here that I think weaken the film somewhat. I have not read the book, by the way, just a plot summary, but it appears the book has a more ambiguous ending than the movie does. I think it sounds like the plot of the book is more powerful, but I have to leave that up to those who have both read the book and watched the movie.
The performances are strong in this film, particularly by Layne, James, Regina King and Teyonah Parris. Aside from King and Teyonah Parris, the actresses in this movie do not have powerful characters to play. Tish is essentially a passive victim. The fathers of Tish and Fonny try to help their children, but are essentially rendered powerless by the system they are fighting. In the end, all these families have to rely on is their love for one another. That is what sustains them. But is that enough to lift this movie out of the pit of despair it has descended into? Some say it is. I am not so sure. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.