Although Barry Jenkins has been around as a filmmaker since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, it was his masterful Best Picture winner Moonlight that brought him into the spotlight. That film showcased his ability to paint an elegant, breathtakingly beautiful portrait of love in all of its myriad forms, and it’s a skill Jenkins brings to his followup, If Beale Street Could Talk. An adaptation of wordsmith James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about love for black Americans in a time of racism and incarceration, the film has all of Jenkins’ polished craft, but it makes for a questionable fit with the author’s prose and message.
Starring newcomer Kiki Layne and Stephan James (he played Jesse Owens in Race), If Beale Street Could Talk centers on the relationship between Tish and Fonny. Childhood friends who have grown into lovers, we’re introduced to them at the height of their happiness as Jenkins crafts a cinematic love poem full of heartfelt declarations and dreams of the future. But can those dreams stand up to a harsh reality in which black people are seen as second-class citizens? Can those dreams last when the criminal justice system crashes down on Fonny, who is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman when he was nowhere in the area, but identified by a racist cop (Ed Skrein) with an ax to grind. As he sits on the opposite side of the glass shield, it’s perhaps not the best time for Tish to reveal that she’s pregnant with his child. They’re going to be parents, and while the timing is inconvenient there is promise in their inevitable happiness.
Again, can such a dream survive? The answer in Jenkins’ film is nebulous, but one thing is for sure and it’s that hope can be found in the soulful connection within the black community. Tish finds support immediately from her fiercely determined mother Sharon (Regina King, amazing as always) sister (Teyonah Parris), and realist father Joseph (Colman Domingo). The movie’s best scene is the moment Tish reveals her pregnancy to Joseph, and while we think he’ll come down hard on the girl he surprises us with his warmth and understanding. The only way to get through something like this is with love, contrasted by the hate and condescension by Fonny’s Bible-thumping mother (Aunjanue Ellis) who scorns Tish upon learning the news.
The loose-knit narrative juggles back and forth in time but mostly is seen through Tish’s flashbacks, painted in vivid, swooning imagery by cinematographer James Laxton. As with any friendship’s evolution into romance, there are awkward periods between Tish and Fonny as they navigate new ways of connecting with one another. Eventually it does lead to sex; careful, respectful, the kind of love-making between people who are truly in awe of another. It’s a great moment and one of the most passionate sex scenes you’ll find. The possibility felt in Tish’s memories nevertheless gives way to resentment, as Fonny struggles to make a life for them in a world he doesn’t seem to fit in. His skills as a woodworker aren’t in demand, and there’s a reluctance to event rent an apartment to two young black people. The arrival of a longtime friend (Brian Tyree Henry) just released from prison gives Fonny a closer look at the despair this world can set in the heart of a black man. It’s a lesson Fonny would eventually learn the hard way himself, as he clings to some measure of hope that he’ll be released from prison in time for the birth of his child.
One of the weaknesses of any adaptation is time, and Jenkins doesn’t have the same patience for building out these characters as Baldwin, who meticulously structured everything with beautiful turns of phrase full of insight about the world they exist in. But Jenkins wants us to love everyone immediately, in particular his two leads who are a touch too sweet, too precious to feel completely real. On the other hand, the supporting cast are entirely lived-in and authentic from the start. Domingo and King are perfect in expressing exactly who there characters are and where they come from. When Joseph huddles with Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) and proposes taking some shady actions to raise bail money, we know it’s coming from a man who has had life put him through some shit. He knows the way the world REALLY works for black people, and he’s done playing fair. King gets a standout moment in a confrontation with Fonny’s accuser, only to realize the true depths of discrimination and its impact on more than just black people. While Jenkins’ lengthy mood interludes worked for crafting Moonlight‘s surreal atmosphere, they are misplaced here where something more grounded would’ve had more of an emotional impact.
It just feels like Jenkins is trying really hard to effect the same dreamy aura with If Beale Street Could Talk that he did with Moonlight, but he doesn’t realize that Baldwin has already done all the hard work. Jenkins just needed to let the actors do their thing, and while they come through in making this the important film he hoped it to be, it’s impossible to escape the sense that it could’ve been so much more as the issues Baldwin addressed still exist today.