‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ review: Can love survive the hate a society gives its own people?
The first thing we see in “If Beale Street Could Talk” emerges as text on a black screen, a quotation from author James Baldwin. “Beale Street,” he wrote, “is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
The street, the metaphor, is wide enough to accommodate all sorts of travelers. With his seriously gorgeous adaptation of the 1974 Baldwin novel, writer-director Barry Jenkins has responded to Baldwin’s lyrical anguish by creating a world of warmth and possibility amid everyday callousness. Jenkins’ first film since the pearl that was the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight” resembles the novel in some ways. In others, it’s very much its own creation. It’s as if Baldwin had met Jenkins on the boulevard, shaken his hand and said: “It’s all yours now.”
This is the first English-language theatrical release based on a Baldwin novel, which is pretty astonishing. The French-language “Where the Heart is,” from 1998, represented a very loose adaptation, and there have been other Baldwin projects on film and television, most recently the fabulous Raoul Peck documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.”
The first time we see Alonzo, known as Fonny, and Clementine, known as Tish, they’re strolling down by the river. Composer Nicholas Britell’s insinuating, supple music (a film highlight of 2018) seems to be setting the scene for a momentous occasion.
Tish is 19; Fonny is 22. At this point in “Beale Street’ they’re plainly in love and, as it happens, on the verge of making love for the first time. Friends since childhood, their attraction has grown naturally. KiKi Layne, in a formidable big-screen debut, makes this young woman naïve and vulnerable, but not credulous, or simple. Stephan James’ Fonny matches her step for step; he’s a forcefully charismatic embodiment of a soul mate who has found a soul mate.
Fonny, a short-order cook sometimes, a sculptor and a woodworker full-time, has plenty going against him as a black man in America. Baldwin’s story is that story: What happens to Fonny, when he’s wrongly accused of rape, doesn’t feel like it belongs to 1974. Or only 1974, certainly. On movie screens this year, in so many strong films, variations on the grim theme of wrongful incarceration, of African-Americans dying at the hands of those charged to protect the innocent, have floated through “The Hate U Give,” “Widows” and others like a poison gas.
“Beale Street” is not new in that regard, but it’s also far more than the sum of its narrative adversities. Through the story of Tish and Fonny, and their intimately entwined families working to get him out of prison, many more characters take the stage. Regina King excels as Tish’s mother, Sharon, a woman of intuition and strength. She leads a matchless ensemble including Colman Domingo’s relaxed, loving husband, Joseph. Brian Tyree Henry strides into the film as an old friend of Fonny’s, recently sprung from prison. He’s like a harbinger of Fonny’s own fate, and their single, fantastically fluid encounter, at Fonny’s downtown studio, is a marvel of interaction.
“Beale Street” isn’t all gold, it must be said. Baldwin risks some obviousness in his depiction of Fonny’s family, particularly that of his fierce churchgoing pill of a mother (Aunjanue L. Ellis). But a key early scene, where Tish announces her pregnancy, hums with dramatic electricity, some unexpectedly sharp zingers and, crucially, an understanding of clashing points of view.
We get to know these faces in enclosed spaces, mostly, and when Tish and Fonny fall slowly into Fonny’s bed, the director and his frequent collaborator and cinematographer, James Laxton, bathe the actors in exquisite light and shadow. Theirs is a supremely tender rendezvous, and Jenkins doesn’t squander the opportunity. Many of the key scenes in “Beale Street” unfold in extended long takes; elsewhere, in a style familiar to moviegoers from Jenkins’ previous “Moonlight” and “Medicine for Melancholy,” the actors speak directly to the camera, Ozu “Tokyo Story” style. It’s especially striking in the scenes when Tish and Fonny converse with a thick pane of glass between them, at the prison.
The story travels to Puerto Rico, as Tish’s mother tracks down the fleeing accuser of her son. But most of “Beale Street” stays within a dreamy, violent, cruel, beautiful vision of 1970s New York. Baldwin’s descriptions in the novel include passages such as this one, narrated by Tish, describing a moment in her loving home with a Ray Charles song on the record player. “I listened to the music and the sounds from the streets and Daddy’s hand rested lightly on my hair. And everything seemed connected — the street sounds, and Ray’s voice and his piano and my Daddy’s hand and sister’s silhouette and the sound and the light coming from the kitchen.”
That’s pure cinema. What Baldwin does with words, Jenkins does visually. It’s what Blanche DuBois says in “A Streetcar Named Desire”: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” In “Beale Street” that magic can be crushing, and soul-stirring, sometimes simultaneously. Jenkins’ epilogue, not found in the novel, may go a little far in its embrace of the affirmative. But that’s hardly the worst thing you can say about any film, let alone one as lovely as this one.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” — 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Running time: 1:56
Opens: Tuesday, Dec. 25
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