By: Steve Pulaski
Like James Baldwin's earnest novel, Barry Jenkins' adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk is a marvelous, tender work. It's almost unprecedented the way in which the textured characters somehow manage to remain steadfast in their optimism for the future despite a murky present; filled with racial discrimination and a litany of other setbacks. From its terrific actors to its lavish lightning and cinematography, most of which chalked up to Jenkins' simultaneously fussy and majestic style, it's a beautiful drama — at times breathtakingly so.
True to Baldwin's themes, the film is both a celebration and an intimate examination of young black love set against the backdrop of the racially divided, crooked neighborhood of Harlem. The film follows 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne in her first major role) and 22-year-old Alfonzo (better known as "Fonny," played by Stephan James), two lifelong friends and schoolmates who have had a clear connection since their earliest days. Flashbacks show the two playing with the suds in their bathtub, having fun and embracing the goofiness of each other in a way that captures both the innocence of childhood and that special, serene moment where you find someone with whom you feel truly connected.
Tish comes from a working-class Harlem family, with a solid foundation from her loving mother (Regina King), disciplined father (Colman Domingo), and her sister (Teyonah Parris), who will always come to bat for her. Late one evening, Tish breaks the news to them that she is pregnant with Fonny's child. Her parents respond warmly, and pour a little gin as a "sacrament," but the news can't be as happy as it should be. Fonny is currently locked up for a rape he didn't commit. He doesn't know the woman accusing him, and she lives in an entirely different neighborhood in New York, far enough away that the logistics of the crime, put bluntly, don't make a bit of sense. His only witness for the prosecution is a slithery, racist police officer who apprehended both him and Tish when they left a convenience store late one evening. It's an abject mess.
Tish goes to visit Fonny on a regular basis; glass separates them and telephones serve as their only channel of communication. In the meantime, legal fees bleed her and her family dry, her relationship with her mother-in-law grows more contentious, and the physical stress of bearing a child and working a steady job wear on her daily.
For a film that's ostensibly so fixated on a downtrodden circumstance, Jenkins (who also wrote the picture) retains a positive, almost joyful undercurrent of hope and positivity that ties together the strength of this couple despite the strains on their relationship. In a larger, sociopolitical context, the neighborhood in which Tish and Fonny belong are one in which people do not want to see succeed. That fact couldn't be more apparent in the eyes of both of them and their families. Their strength manifests itself into an indivisible bond the two carry with them throughout their tumultuous days as parents-to-be.
Jenkins conducts If Beale Street Could Talk like a stageplay, where blocking, character dialog, and spatial awareness all come into play. It reminds me a great deal of Fences, despite that film already stemming from August Wilson's exceptional stage-play, from a choreography standpoint. One can clearly tell Jenkins spent much of rehearsal getting the positioning of the actors exactly right to facilitate a believable yet structured exchange of conversation, and the end result is a favorable one because it paints us so naturally into this tight-knit clan.
Jenkins, too, collaborates with cinematographer James Laxton, with whom he worked on Moonlight, and the men once again bring a lush, mellow quality to an already moving story. The arresting visuals let If Beale Street Could Talk evolve from another drama into a potent, affecting portrait of characters who carry with them the history and pain of their ancestors as they navigate the perils of their own modern life. The color palette and narrative operate in a germane fashion to amplify this detail, capped off with the long-stares and the characters' presence in any given scene. It's perhaps the aspect of Baldwin's novel that holds strongest in the film.
Where Moonlight sensitively looked at black masculinity and sexuality, both individually and in conjunction with one another, If Beale Street Could Talk keeps history in check as it follows Tish and Fonny. You get the idea that the weight of history and torment is constantly on the shoulders of our two lovers, and Baldwin — a brilliant social critic and essayist on top of a compelling novelist — went beyond allegory and cutesy symbolism to articulate this. The film opens with a quote from him: “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." It's a quote so good, the film should close with it too, for it needs to be said again and again.