If Beale Street Could Talk
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Writer/director Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 Oscar-winning masterpiece of a debut, Moonlight, with the ambitious goal of translating the work of a beautifully complex writer to a cinematic narrative. By respecting the material with a stirring commitment to character, If Beale Street Could Talk meets that goal with grace.
Based on the novel by James Baldwin (and the first English-language adaptation of his fiction), the film follows a struggling couple as a means to illustrate the intersecting forms of oppression facing African Americans.
Tish (KiKi Layne in an impressive feature debut) and “Fonny” (Stephan James, from Selma and Race) are a young couple in Harlem who embraces their unexpected pregnancy while struggling to prove Fonny’s innocence in a rape case.
As the surface tension is driven by the potentially dangerous chances Kiki’s mother (Regina King) takes to clear Fonny’s name, smaller, more quiet moments around the neighborhood cement Baldwin’s incisive take on what it means to be black in America.
Baldwin’s writing – a mix of brutal honesty, brilliant clarity and weary outrage – is understandably daunting as a film adaptation. Themes which breathe with life on the page can come to the screen in an awkward rush and land as heavy handed melodrama.
Jenkins, whose early script got the blessing of Baldwin’s estate even before the triumph of Moonlight, brings an elegance to the story which fits comfortably. A poetic camera, authentic characters and tender, fully realized performances—especially from the glorious King—weave together to sing the praises of Baldwin’s prose in hypnotic, and often heartbreaking fashion.
Amid a story of grim realities and American resilience lie bonds of love and family that the film never loses sight of, even in its most sober moments, which may be the most miraculous aspect of If Beale Street Could Talk.
It is a film without illusions, but one that carries the unbowed spirit of its characters on a deeply felt journey that honors its origins.