Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins follows his Oscar-winning 'Moonlight' with this gorgeous tone poem of James Baldwin’s searing, political novel of young love in 1970s Harlem.
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The Baldwin estate wisely waited for Barry Jenkins, the Academy Award-winning writer-director of Moonlight, to be the first to film a big-screen English-language adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, and Jenkins wisely chose If Beale Street Could Talk, a story as timely today as it was when it was published in 1974. It’s a perfect pairing of sensibilities; Jenkins and Baldwin share a nuanced, lyrical style that conveys the beauty and hope in even the most despairing of situations, with a focus on the emotional truths of their characters. Like the novel, the film is a love story, as well as a powerful indictment of systemic racism and the criminal-justice system.

Jenkins does his best to translate Baldwin’s formal choices: The story moves back and forth in time and is narrated by Tish, a self-effacing but wise 19-year-old from Harlem whom we soon learn is pregnant with the child of her best friend and lover, Fonny, a sculptor. We first see them in an aerial shot beneath shimmering gold leaves walking by the river, Tish in orange, Fonny in blue, complementary colors for complementary souls. Horns, then strings play a haunting melody, and the mood is charged, romantic. Jenkins and his crew, including his brilliant cinematographer James Laxton, use color and sound here as they did in Moonlight to dazzling effect. As played by newcomer KiKi Layne and “Homecoming”’s Stephan James, Tish and Fonny have a natural chemistry, effortlessly conveying the lovers’ thoughts just by looking at each other.

Nearly as central as Tish and Fonny’s love is the love of Tish’s family, the Rivers: her empathetic mother, Sharon, played by the magnificent Regina King; her vibrant father, Joseph (the charismatic Colman Domingo); and her feisty older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), all of whom go the extra mile to keep the young couple afloat when the flood waters break. There’s a lovely early scene in their small living room (lush with deep greens and yellows) when after they lift glasses of brandy, Sharon says, “This is a sacrament. We’re drinking to a new life.” As with much of the dialogue, it’s straight from the text, with Baldwin’s wonderful, authentic, insightful voice. By this point, everyone knows that Fonny is in prison, awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit, accused in a lineup by a fragile, young Puerto Rican woman of rape after he was picked up miles from the scene by a corrupt cop.

In contrast to the Rivers, Fonny’s family, with the exception of his father, lose it when they come over later that night and learn of the pregnancy, his high-and-mighty mother (Aunjanue Ellis) snarling, “That child is born of sin.” Jenkins does justice to Baldwin’s brilliant portrayal of these clashing families, though it’s even more graphic in the book.

Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) is deeply affecting as Fonny’s old friend Daniel, whose expressive face goes from joker to ghost as he recounts his time in prison on trumped-up charges. “When you’re in there, they can do with you whatever they want.” Fonny listens, impassive, as though he senses his fate.

While some film adaptations suffer from a director’s fidelity to the source material, If Beale Street Could Talk is stronger for it. It helps that Baldwin’s work, set in the early 1970s, is highly cinematic with short evocative scenes and pungent dialogue. The beautiful location shooting in Harlem and Greenwich Village does not exactly jibe with the book’s description of the “garbage dump” of New York (that is accomplished through searing archival black-and-white photographs at various points in the movie), but it’s a gift to the viewer and in no way detracts from the grittiness of this all-too-real drama. Jenkins’ major break from the book, a tacked-on ending that takes the characters to another phase in their lives, feels anticlimactic, although it’s understandable that the novel’s final scene, Tish going into labor, might not be as satisfying a finale on film as it is on paper.

What is especially satisfying in this rich and memorable movie is Baldwin and Jenkins’ celebration of love and “new life” in the face of cruelty and injustice. As Sharon tells her pregnant daughter when Tish is questioning her future, “Remember, love is what brought you here—trust it all the way.”