Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. It confirms the director as one of the most talented working today, writes Caryn James.
After Moonlight won best picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, director Barry Jenkins used his leverage to bring a long-standing dream of his to life: to adapt James Baldwin’s emotionally potent 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.
It’s easy to see why Jenkins was so drawn to the story, of a young black couple whose romantic dreams come crashing up again the powerful reality of white society. Jenkins’ approach, here as in Moonlight, mirrors Baldwin’s own, using a poetic style to reveal harsh social truths. His film is lush and ambitious, its theme of racial bias as relevant now as it was when Baldwin’s novel first appeared. The film is also too pretty for its own good at times, and more compelling in parts than as a whole. But at its best it confirms Jenkins as one of the most talented film-makers working today.\He sets up the contrasts in his story at the start. Set in the 1970s in New York’s Harlem and Greenwich Village neighbourhoods, Beale Street introduces its main characters in a lyrical scene, as an overhead shot views them walking in a park on a beautiful autumn day. Tish (KiKi Layne) is 19 and Fonny (Stephan James) is 22. Both are fresh-faced innocents who gaze into each other’s eyes and say they are ready to face the world together. From this swoony, idyllic flashback we cut to a scene of Tish looking at Fonny through the glass of a prison visiting room, telling him she is pregnant.
Tish is the narrator, her brief voiceover recurring now and then. Flashbacks reveal the earlier days of their romance, and the story moves fluidly ahead, as Tish talks to a lawyer and tries to get Fonny out of prison. James Laxton, the cinematographer who created the cool, deep blue palette for Moonlight, presents a warmer look in Beale Street, infusing the film with glowing colours against a darker background. Like those rich colours, Fonny and Tish’s relationship remains strong even as they lose their innocence.
We eventually learn why Fonny is in prison. A belligerent white policeman, whom we have seen threaten him, later arrests him for raping a white woman, although Fonny was nowhere near the attack. Historically, the accusation resonates with more than a century of such wrongful charges against black men, particularly in the US South.
At the start and again at the end of the film, Jenkins includes photos of black men being arrested, beaten and forced to their knees by white police officers. “The system has been rigged and the courts see it through,” Tish says near the end. Jenkins lets these moments land without overplaying their social purpose. The contemporary resonance and allusion to the Black Lives Matter movement are so apparent, he doesn’t need to make them explicit.
Jenkins has not created a message film, but one about love and family that also conveys a message. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), her father (Colman Domingo) and her older sister (Teyonah Parris) are unfailing in their support. King is especially poignant, her face capturing quiet strength and compassion. When Tish confides that she is pregnant – the last thing any of them needs under the circumstances – Sharon gathers the family for a toast. “We are drinking to new life,” she says, an embrace of the future that in no way denies her awareness of the difficulties her daughter will face.
All the actors are convincing, even in the close-ups that Jenkins often turns to and that require such honesty for the camera. King is the most heartbreaking, because her performance reveals complexities even beyond the layered character Jenkins’ script has given her.
Adding to the story’s contrasts, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is a shrew who tells Tish, “I always knew you’d be the destruction of my son.” His father (Michael Beach) and Tish’s are old neighbourhood friends who commiserate, at times too bluntly, as if for the film’s viewers and not themselves, about how difficult it is to be a black man trying to get ahead. And with just a couple of scenes, Brian Tyree Henry adds to his list of terrific supporting roles (including one in Steve McQueen’s latest, Widows) as a friend of Fonny’s just released from prison.
Despite the close-ups and the sympathetic characters, a distant, cerebral beauty underlies the film. The camerawork and production design are so lovely they can be distracting. In the scene that introduces Tish and Fonny, the mustard yellow in Fonny’s shirt is echoed in Tish’s coat and in the turning leaves on the trees, all captured in the overhead shot. The romantic look feels a bit too calculated, just as the strings that sometimes soar on the soundtrack are a few levels over the top. Impassioned moments stand out – Fonny yelling at Tish from behind the prison glass that he is going to die there – yet overall there is an almost austere tone, unlike the emotional pull of Baldwin’s novel.
Whatever its weaknesses, If Beale Street Could Talk, only Jenkins’ third film, is a strong addition to a distinctive body of work. Anyone who became aware of him with Moonlight might want to catch up with his first film, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, a lyrical little gem about a night-long date in gentrifying San Francisco. It was evident from the start that Jenkins’ commanding voice and graceful style are like no other director’s.