Every so often in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins’ sobering yet intoxicating adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, two young lovers named Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) lock gazes with one another and with the camera. The director frames each one of them head-on; they stare into each other’s eyes as we stare into theirs.
The stillness of the effect is a little unsettling at first; you have to slow your rhythms and adjust your way of seeing. But it is also quietly overpowering, a reminder that there are few landscapes more expressive or inexhaustible than the human face.
Few filmmakers implore you to scrutinize their characters as closely as does Jenkins, who, since making his 2008 feature debut with “Medicine for Melancholy,” has demonstrated an unusually sensitive eye for the overlooked. Two years ago he made the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” his masterful portrait of a young black man from Miami wrestling with his sexuality as well as a childhood scarred by poverty and neglect. In Jenkins’ hands, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play became a soulful cinematic sonata, an exploration of identity in three chronologically ordered movements.
In the dreamy, sweepingly nonlinear “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Jenkins abandons progression for immersion. Although Tish and Fonny will soon find themselves trapped by nightmarish circumstances, they are effectively set loose to wander through time, in a story that blurs past and present as deftly as it interweaves the political and the personal. The ruminative, time-shuffling structure is inspired by Baldwin’s novel, which Jenkins quotes abundantly in dialogue, even as he once again coaxes a literary work into its own vibrant cinematic shape.
The title of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a reference to the 1916 W.C. Handy song “Beale Street Blues,” also alludes to a symbolic boulevard in every American city — “a loud street,” in Baldwin’s words — where black people can gather and speak freely, swapping stories, cracking jokes and giving voice to their dreams, joys and grievances. The movie’s version of Beale Street is a stretch of Harlem in the early 1970s, the same neighborhood where Tish and Fonny grew up, with occasional visits to the dilapidated West Village apartment that serves too briefly as their home.
The first time we meet Clementine “Tish” Rivers, 19, and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, 22, they’re walking through a park scattered with dry leaves — a scene captured in gorgeous washes of autumn color by the cinematographer James Laxton and soulfully caressed by Nicholas Britell’s achingly beautiful score. It’s an idyllic moment, blissful in its sense of harmony and freedom, but we can already feel it slipping away. In the next scene, the lovers are separated by glass, Fonny having been thrown in jail after being falsely accused of sexual assault.
This shocking turn of events is quickly compounded by another, as Tish informs Fonny that he’s going to be a father, news that he registers with an understandable mix of surprise, delight and heartache. Tish’s family members, while similarly thrown by the news, prove unshakable in their support. Both her boisterous father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her shrewd older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), take their loving cues from the family’s steadfast matriarch, Sharon (a wonderful Regina King), who in every scene exercises her gift for defusing potentially tense, awkward situations.
But Sharon is also no pushover, as we see when Fonny’s bitter, fanatically religious mother (a startling Aunjanue Ellis) lashes out at Tish, in a group conversation notable for its simmering comic tension and some ingeniously deployed expletives. The power of King’s performance — which several critics groups have singled out for awards among the movie’s terrific ensemble cast — is in the way it treats kindness as both a strength and a discipline. We also see the degree to which both of Sharon’s daughters have absorbed her spirit of decency and perseverance, as all three women work tirelessly with Fonny’s lawyer (Finn Wittrock) to secure his release.
But “If Beale Street Could Talk” is not a law-and-order procedural; nor is it the kind of movie in which a happy outcome can be achieved through some brilliant legal strategy. The story does take a few gripping turns: We learn that the accuser, a Puerto Rican-born immigrant named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), was pressured to name Fonny as her assailant by a police officer (Ed Skrein) harboring a racist grudge against him. Even before this infuriating if hardly surprising news come to light, Tish and her family never question Fonny’s innocence. Neither do Baldwin and Jenkins, although they extend their sympathies with equal force to Victoria, played by Rios in a scene that nearly tears a hole in the movie’s exquisite fabric.
The crimes committed against Victoria and Fonny are not equivalent or even remotely similar offenses, but together they constitute a harsh indictment of an American legal system that has little interest in learning the truth or achieving the aims of justice. Fonny’s incarceration exists on a vast continuum with the challenges facing, say, a black couple trying to rent an apartment in New York — a friendly Jewish landlord (Dave Franco) proves a rare exception to the rule — or a black woman, like Tish, who works behind the perfume counter at a mostly white-staffed department store.
We hear the somber testimony of Fonny’s old friend Daniel (a devastating Brian Tyree Henry), an ex-con who recalls the torments he suffered at the hands of cops who framed him for car theft. And Jenkins, leaning into the spirit of bold, confrontational truth telling that so galvanized Baldwin’s activism and literature, evokes an entire history of systemic, racialized oppression, as Tish’s damningly composed voiceover plays over photographs of African American men being arrested and abused en masse.
These are ugly images, and they make Jenkins’ eye and ear for beauty all the more striking. Like “Moonlight,” but with even more forceful lyricism, “If Beale Street Could Talk” has a lush expressionist streak that recalls the Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, a master at using intense colors and striking compositions to express his characters’ interior states. It also evokes the styles of other world filmmakers whom Jenkins has acknowledged as his influences, including Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien and especially Wong Kar-wai, the Hong Kong auteur best known for his romantic melodrama “In the Mood for Love.”
You can see Wong’s touch in the stunning photographic attention that Jenkins and Laxton lavish on their charismatic leads, and also in the whorls of cigarette smoke that envelop Fonny, a sculptor, as he considers his latest artwork. You see it perhaps most of all when he and Tish make love for the first time: As Tish observes in the novel, “We held each other so close that we might indeed have been one body” — and the movie realizes that sentiment with a swelteringly erotic sequence in which Britell’s shuddering strings reach a peak of emotional ecstasy.
But there is more to this movie than a patina of glamour. We are not often accustomed to seeing images of working-class life through anything besides a grotty kitchen-sink filter; we are not often reminded, frankly, that there is much here to look at. The formal ravishment of “If Beale Street Could Talk” thus takes on an implicitly political dimension; it may well be the movie’s stealthiest, most radical display of empathy.
In cutting against the aesthetic grain, Jenkins gently and wisely corrects our vision. The passionate glow of this filmmaker’s embrace belongs, quite rightly, to his characters. He is generous enough to also extend that embrace to us.
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
Rating: R, for language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles