Charlie Schufreider’s review published on Letterboxd:
At the end of the movie, a film that sees it primary couple struggle so much against the not-so-differently-than-today racist society of the 1960s just to be together, our narrator, the female protagonist Tish (KiKi Layne) tells us that she and her lover, Fonny (Stephan James) are no longer young. Their faces tell a different story. I, writing now at the ripe, young age of 25, am at a turning point in my consumption of media. I can’t help but noticing that the characters I often see portrayed on film are either right around my own age or (usually) a few years younger. And, fuck, do they look young.
The movie chronicles the story of Tish and Fonny’s courtship, and their subsequent time apart as Fonny spends time in jail on a rape accusation while Tish is at home working like hell to prove his innocence. She’s also carrying his baby.
It’s a movie that tries to show its audience about the lived experience of Black people in America, but it’s often more tell than show. It’s in this way I found it odd that this was created by the same director who created one of my all-time favorite movies, Moonlight. I guess it would be hard to argue that Moonlight was a subtle movie, but it wasn’t full of big speeches or extensive dialogue explaining the experience of its protagonist. It merely presented the life of Chiron, and allowed audiences to infer from everything the way society viewed him and treated him.
This film is a little more on the nose in telling the audience “look at the things we have to do because of racism.” There’s a scene between Fonny and Tish’s father where the latter works hard to convince the other to turn to crime to afford Fonny’s lawyer’s fees that feels a little heavy-handed. There’s another that chronicles the difficulty of Fonny’s white lawyer faces from his bosses for taking on this case. And then there’s an explanation from Tish at the end about the nature of plea bargains and how they unfairly affect black men. Jenkins intercuts this particular narration, as well as others throughout the film, with historical images and black-and-white photos from the days of slavery or Jim Crow, creating a visual link between the treatment of Black people in the 60s (and by extension now) and the treatment of Black people during the times of slavery. The conclusion? Not too different.
But my feeling towards the film's inconsistent writing is exemplified in an unnecessary scene with rDave Franco as a Jewish hippie landlord over-explaining the film’s message that race shouldn’t matter; love matters.
But even without this scene, the film's inclusion of narration is an unfortunate choice, as it robs the film of some nuance and intellect. It’s as if the director and studio felt that without this narration, the audience might interpret the film incorrectly, not understand that what they were seeing was the result of injustice. One key scene sticks out in my mind to highlight how the movie is hampered by narration. Midway through the film, Tish starts working at a department store in the perfume department in order to make extra money. As part of her job, she is to offer samples of perfume. Customers can elect to have Tish spray their own arm with perfume, or instead bring Tish’s perfumed-arm to their own nose. Tish narrates how black men will always smell their own arm, but white men are creepy and treat the opportunity to smell Tish like getting a chance with an "exotic" Louisiana whore. It’s a powerful scene. One that’s upsettingly truthful and hard to watch, but cheapened by the fact that we are told exactly what Tish is thinking. We don’t need to be told! We can see it in her face!
The reason I focus on this so much is because, even looking at this film alone without the knowledge that the masterpiece Moonlight exists, the film can do an incredible at “showing” injustice without telling. My favorite sequence in the film sees Tish’s mother Sharon, played incredibly and confidently by Regina King in her Oscar-winning performance, fly to Puerto Rico in order to track down the woman who has accused Fonny of rape. The sequence is set to a noir-like jazz score, and has Sharon trying on a new wig like a private eye putting on a disguise. The movie primes us through these choices to expect some big investigation, a big reveal of truth. There’s even a dinner conversation with a guarded Pedro Pascal filled with half-truths and half-answers all about some femme fatale that seems right out of a noir classic. But Sharon when Sharon finally does get to meet with the woman, she doesn’t get the answer she wants. We don’t see that Fonny’s accuser suddenly renounces her mistaken accusation and all is forgiven. We see the horrible consequences of rape, what it does to the women who are its victims, and the unfair burdens we place on women to seek justice on their perpetrators. We see these things; they aren’t explained.
Again I harp on this distinction because I really wanted to like this movie more as it has so much going for it. I loved the realism the movie brings, its aversion to presenting easy answers to difficult questions. I love the performances by its leads, and their natural chemistry. I love exploring the dynamics of Tish’s family. I love the score, I love the cinematography. But it’s the writing where I feel ultimately the film fails to match the incredible highs of its predecessor.
Though to an extent, this really doesn’t matter. The movie does such a good job of creating these characters, making you care about them, feeling their excitement for life, feeling their youth, that their story will always be heartbreaking and will always succeed in highlighting the tale's injustice. And I, the 25-year-old white guy, sit there and realize that this story is not a one-off experience, and that it happens to so many of my Black peers. Despite what Tish says, they are young. Not that this story would somehow be "less bad" were they older, but the tragedy is certainly heightened seeing Fonny locked up at age 22 while Tish is only 19. The way their relationship is beautifully developed as they celebrate their youth and future, makes the eventual injustice all the more difficult to watch.