If Beale Street Could Talk

This is a meaningful film that will leave you feeling emotionally exhausted.

if beale street could talkIf Beale Street Could Talk brings all of the strengths and weaknesses that director/writer Barry Jenkins brought us with last years’ Oscar-winning Moonlight. This is a historically important movie with a powerful story that will leave you exhausted as noted above long before its conclusion after one hour and fifty-nine minutes.

First and foremost, it is the last film that a criminal defense lawyer like myself would want to see as an escape from the real world. Director Jenkins describes the ordeal of a young black couple who’s love and devotion for each other in a segregated black section of New Orleans decades ago becomes tragically interrupted when the young man is falsely arrested and accused of rape. The film centers on the ordeal of the family as they fight this god-awful disaster and it reminded me of what I have lived through as a criminal lawyer to this very day. The last thing I needed was a reminder of the emotional agony that has become a part of my professional life since I began serving as a public defender in 1975.

The film is based on a book written by James Baldwin that embraces the ordeal of growing up black in America. Young African-American people have been constantly exposed to false arrests as well as being gunned down under questionable circumstances by law enforcement and this film captures that agony. In addition, its strength is derived from performances that exceed the praise given to other 2018 films that ironically star mostly white actors. And before I forget, hunt down the documentary on Mr. Baldwin entitled I Am Not Your Negro (2016).

In this case, let me start with the enchanting performances of Kiki Lane as Tish and Stephen James as Fonny, the two lovers that must learn to deal with his false incarceration. However, the movie belongs to the performances of Regina King, Coleman Domingo, Michael Beach and Aujanue Ellis. Ms. King has just won a Golden Globe award for her performance as Tish’s mother, a practical, thoughtful woman who travels all the way to Puerto Rico to try to find a way to prove her daughter’s fiancé’s innocence. You will never forget this performance.

In addition, Mr. Domingo stands out as Ms. King’s devoted husband, and watch for the captivating scene where he and Ms. King interact with Fonny’s sparring spouses, played by Mr. Beach and Ms. Ellis. Mr. Beach’s husband does his best to support the pregnant Tish while Ms. Ellis’ role as Fonny’s mother dismisses the whole relationship involving her child as being condemnable on religious grounds.

The movie’s weakness flows from continual scenes where the principle characters accomplish little other than staring fondly at each other. Then again, the film will appeal to trial lawyers as you watch Fonny’s trial counsel (Dave Franco) struggle to find a way to defend an innocent client. Those of us who have done this work understand the strains involved in dealing with a family’s agony, and that is never helped when additional financial costs become an issue. Again, there is nothing that happened in this movie that I haven’t personally experienced and it reminded me of why I have sarcastically told my aging friends that I wanted this on my tombstone:

“Here lies Bob Hammerle. No, this isn’t good, but it beats practicing criminal law for all eternity!”

Let me close with a comment that I have made before in regard to racial discrimination that continues to permeate our society. First and foremost, that begins with the fact that we are losing a lot of teenage African-American males to our educational system. Having taught the fifth grade at an all-black school here in Indianapolis in 1969-1970, I am convinced that I know an answer.

Given that summer vacations are based solely on an agricultural system that no longer exists, we should have a national policy in major metropolitan areas that require all public schools to be open the entire year. Start with kindergarten and extend it through the 12th grade. While we could give parents an option to opt out of this program, we could have a system where we don’t lose kids to the streets over the ridiculously long summer breaks by keeping them in school where both they and society could benefit.

What in God’s name do we have to lose?