“If Beale Street Could Talk” adapts James Baldwin’s novel into a haunting, gorgeous film
It seems natural that Barry Jenkins settled on James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk for his first post-Moonlight film project. At Beale Street’s world premiere in Toronto. Jenkins was introduced as a filmmaker whose movies are not just about love. But are themselves love letters to the audience.
And Beale Street is both a love story and one suffused by love for its characters. As well as the world in which they’re trying to get by.
That’s familiar territory for Jenkins, who tells unconventional stories of love and intimacy about black America. His 2008 debut Medicine for Melancholy is about a one-night stand between a social activist and a young, affluent professional. That turns into a long day of talking about everything, including the differences that may keep them apart. His 2016 film Moonlight, which won the Best Picture Oscar. That is a triptych spanning three stages of a young man’s life as he grasps for connection and comes to term with desire.
If Beale Street Could Talk applies that approach to 1970s New York City, centering on a young black couple who grew up together, then fell in love. And then conflict takes over — not from inside their relationship. But pressing in from the outside world.
It’s a beautiful, lyrical film, at times feeling (as Moonlight did) like a tone poem or a lyrical plaint: though Jenkins’s filmmaking is near-perfect and the film’s images are indelible. Without Baldwin’s prose it may scan more as a series of vignettes than a narrative feature film. But it’s nonetheless hard not to fall under If Beale Street Could Talk’s somber, lustrous spell.
“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street”
The title of Baldwin’s 1974 New York-set novel evokes a significant street in Memphis, both as a reference to W.C. Handy’s song “Beale Street Blues” and because. As the film’s epigraph quotes Baldwin saying, “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
Memphis’s Beale Street is a place of triumph and tragedy. A center of black life and culture, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966. By an Act of Congress, it was named the “Home of the Blues” in 1977. But whole sections were razed in the same period, rendering it a virtual ghost town.
That same mix of triumph and tragedy dominates If Beale Street Could Talk.
One day 19-year-old Tish (newcomer Kiki Layne) realizes that her childhood friend Alonzo (Stephan James), whom everyone calls “Fonny,” is in love with her. The pair grew up together in Harlem, where Tish lives with her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Fonny grew up there, too, with his alcoholic father (Michael Beach), unforgivingly pietistic mother (Aunjanue Ellis). And judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).
Now Fonny lives downtown in the Village, where he makes sculptures and eats at a local Spanish restaurant. Tish shyly joins him to walk through the neighborhood’s streets and, soon, discovers she’s fallen for him too. They belong to each other already, she realizes. Their bodies and souls are already joined. All that’s left to do is be happy.
Which she is, when she discovers she’s pregnant.
But Tish’s and Fonny’s joy comes on the heels of something much darker: Having angered a beat cop in the Village, Fonny finds himself identified as the assailant by a woman who was raped across town. Tish knows he couldn’t have done it — the timing and geography don’t work out. But Fonny is sent to jail anyway, and Tish and her family set about trying to exonerate him.
As in the novel, the way Jenkins tells this story is loping and elliptical, starting in the middle and moving forward and backward over the timeline in ways. That make it feel like we’re watching a painter carefully cover a canvas in brush strokes. That painting at first looks like a romance. But the more the details are filled in, the more tragic and angry and helpless it feels. It’s a story about Tish and Fonny, but it’s just one part of the larger American story.
Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed By: Barry Jenkins (III)
Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Written By: Barry Jenkins (III)
In Theaters: Jan 11, 2019 Wide
Runtime: 117 minutes
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK:
Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk is a gorgeous, enveloping film — and one of its most poignant triumphs is how vividly it captures the depth and complication of intimacy among its black characters.
Just as the novel version of If Beale Street Could Talk moves between love story and protest novel, a balance Baldwin strikes throughout many of his works, Jenkins’ adaptation uses flashbacks to oscillate between two worlds.
Jenkins doesn’t scratch the surface of the black American experience. He takes you deep into its bones and suggests that far less has changed than the naive may believe.
The final reel is painful (the bee sting of bigotry). The ending is tough. The compensation resides in the elegant and searing film-making of Jenkins.