Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk is a story of family, hope, and despair. Released in 2018 and based on a book of the same title by famed author James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk reveals what we already knew: writer-director Barry Jenkins is a master of the craft.
From the time they were children, Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) were raised together. After a lifetime together, Tish and Fonny begin to develop a romantic relationship as young adults. Before the pair can live happily ever after, Fonny is arrested for a rape that he did not commit. Tish soon learns that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child and tells Fonny on the phone in a prison visitation room. When Tish’s family learns that she is pregnant, they invite Fonny’s family over to break the news. Fonny’s religious mother and traditional sisters object to Fonny and Tish’s union and wish ill will on their unborn child, conceived out of sin. This leaves to a schism in the family, and only Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), stays to support Tish and Fonny. Frank and Tish’s father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), hustle to provide for the family while Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) fight to free Fonny.
Unfairly targeted by a racist, emasculated police officer, Fonny’s life—and the lives of those around him—becomes defined by his imprisonment. The fallout from a single incarceration irreparably changes life for two separate families. Beale Street is a personal story, but it isn’t a small story. Intimacy doesn’t have to give way to exclusivity; it can connect big ideas and link diverse segments of the population. Popcorn flicks aren’t the only movies with the power to unite us. Like Kenneth Lonergan, who operates in a similar sphere, Jenkins’s stories aren’t always about people like us or even people we’ve ever met before, but we identify with them as humans. This is Jenkins’s greatest superpower. For Beale Street, we identify with a story of being black in America.
Beale Street isn’t a happy movie by any means, but that does not preclude it from being the most beautiful film of 2018. After working with Nicholas Britell on Moonlight, Jenkins teamed with the composer again here. Britell’s horn-filled, Harlem-inspired score conveys love’s optimism and its melancholy at once. Visually, the film is shot almost entirely in close up. Jenkins relies on superb performances from Layne, James, and King and the magnificence of Baldwin’s story. Baldwin’s novel still resonates 45 years later, but if you were to have one issue with the narrative, it may be that Fonny’s accuser, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) confidently picks him out of a police lineup and repeatedly affirms that he was her assailant. Fonny’s alibi is shown on camera, but there’s something uncomfortable (and reminiscent of a certain “ripped from the headlines” story) about a group accepting that a woman was raped but disagreeing with her assertions about the perpetrator’s identity. Jenkins does enough to sow doubt that the police led Victoria to pick Fonny, but one more scene likely would have been enough to dispel any doubt.
Evident in Beale Street and Moonlight, Jenkins reveres his source material and the symbolism derived from it. The vibrant red canopy of an umbrella offers Tish and Fonny protection from the New York City elements and any other obstacle they may face, emblematic of the safety provided by their newfound love. A cream-colored cape hangs around Tish’s shoulders as she and Fonny seek their first apartment, a wholesome and unencumbered moment, not yet burdened by an unjust time behind bars. These are the small touches—the intricate details—that set Jenkins apart. Jenkins lets Baldwin do the telling when Baldwin’s words paint the picture. Members of Jenkins’s crew, like costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, go to work when Baldwin only hints at his intentions.
There is something to be said of adapting a work for the screen and revising the script for a modern audience, as Paul Dano did with Wildlife, or using the source material as a springboard for a different idea, as Alex Garland did with Annihilation and Stanley Kubrick with The Shining. Yet, of all approaches, the painstaking realization of a play, novel, or other written work to the screen is likely the most challenging of all. Jenkins is adept at selecting works that are as relevant today as the day they were written. As with Moonlight, Jenkins delivers another stirring and empathetic piece about growing up as a minority in the United States.