Barry Jenkins’ post-Moonlight cinematic adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, feels like a labor of love, a project infused with such personal resonance and appreciation, as if Jenkins were trying to channel Baldwin’s film-loving literary spirit into the cinematic medium. Baldwin’s works are notably unadaptable to the screen; the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro did wonders with Baldwin’s prose and footage from his life, but even still seemed limited in its capacity to capture Baldwin, as if his soul could not be bounded by the form and kept overflowing its edges. Like both Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro, If Beale Street Could Talk is a haunting, romantic, and melancholic depiction of the American black experience.
Lush, woozy and exquisite, Beale Street takes a symphonic approach to its simple narrative: a black man and a black woman are in love, yet separated by injustice in 1970s New York. The young woman, Tish (Kiki Layne, in a stunning film debut) realizes that her childhood friend from Harlem, Fonny (Stephan James), is in love with her, and she with him. They gaze into each others eyes–there is a lot of gazing in Beale Street–with a sincerity and ardor that makes you want them to succeed in all their plans and dreams. She’s a 19-year-old woman with her whole future ahead of her; he’s an artist making sculptures in the Village in a basement apartment. When their love leads to Tish becoming pregnant, she seeks the help and support of her family: her caring parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her fiery sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). But having accidentally provoked a racist police officer to humiliate him, Fonny finds himself unjustly in jail on a rape accusation, a situation which radically complicates this otherwise simple boy-meets-girl tale.
Jenkins reveals the details of the story elliptically, a rhythm of narration and images washing over you as the beautiful jazzy soundtrack from Nicholas Britell romanticizes every scene. The production design, lighting, and cinematography are all simply stunning; Jenkins truly knows how to light and direct a scene, how to bring out the richness of human skin tone and eye color, how bodily postures and glances can say more than any expository narration. Tish serves as our narrator, her voice guiding us through the montage of images; it’s a device which reveals the films’ literary roots, as the narration is such beautiful prose. Every performance is powerful, especially Layne as Tish and Regina King as her mother, Sharon. A lengthy late-act sequence with Sharon visiting Puerto Rico could have felt tangential, but King’s performance anchors it within the story, and reveals that Tish’s devoted and unstoppable love is a legacy she inherited from her mother. There’s a brief scene with Brian Tyree Henry which so short as to be a cameo, but it’s worth mentioning simply because of Henry’s incredible presence and performance–he does a lot with very little, and his eyes tell the story of his days in prison as a black man in America.
The religious elements within Beale Street are complex, with Fonny’s mother as a Bible-thumping fundamentalist angered at the “bastard” child Tish carries; the scene with her and her bitter daughters felt almost comical, and is strangely over-the-top and melodramatic for such a muted film. Yet there are other positive hints of spirituality and religion, such as various mealtime prayers and the brief cameo of Dave Franco as a young Jewish man renting an apartment to Tish and Fonny. Jenkins’ camera opens the film with a God’s-eye view, following the young couple from above like a spirit hovering over the waters.
Ultimately, Beale Street is a film I admired more than I loved. Beautiful to look at and listen to, its pacing is lingering and languid. This tempo sometimes felt patient; other times, just slow. Yet it’s through this slow-and-simple love story that Jenkins (and Baldwin) are asking us to pay attention, to slow down and notice what’s happening in the neighborhoods of America, to truly listen to Beale Street’s voice.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7125860/