[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.]
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” depicts the experiences of a pregnant black teen in Harlem with a cinematic quality that practically reads like a screenplay. It’s no wonder that writer-director Barry Jenkins takes his cues from the source, transforming Baldwin’s evocative vision of young lovers grappling with race and class into a masterful poetic romance as Baldwin envisioned it. Yet Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight” also maintains his own profound, expressionistic aesthetic, with its lush colors and entrancing faces that speak volumes in few words, resulting in a fascinating hybrid experience — a seminal voice of the past merging with one of the present in a mesmerizing burst of creative passion.
While “Moonlight” engaged with the internal struggles of closeted Miami boy across a vaguely defined era, “Beale Street” is firmly rooted in a time and place: Civil Rights-era Harlem, where 19-year-old Tish (extraordinary newcomer Kiki Layne) contends with the news that she’s pregnant with child of her 22-year-old boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) while he’s behind bars. Accused of a rape that evidence suggests he couldn’t have committed, Fonny begins “Beale Street” as the epitome of everything holding Tish back from the life she wants for herself. He’s a victim of the system that keeps all of them — Fonny, Tish, and their respective families — from achieving a degree of emotional satisfaction that they chase in every scene.
As with the novel, Tish narrates the story on two simultaneous timelines, recalling her early courtship with Fonny and the challenges surrounding his incarceration at the same time. Jenkins weaves them together with remarkable fluidity, with his familiar visual finesse bringing a livelier update to the sophisticated tapestry of “Moonlight.” This time, the outline of grim drama is brimming with cracks of light.
Cinematographer James Laxton’s vivid palette merges with Nicholas Britell’s swooning musical compositions as the movie assembles its narrative out of small moments: When Tish tells her mother Sharon (Regina King) about the pregnancy, Jenkins only includes the beginning of the conversation, with the hesitation on Layne’s face expressing everything about the character’s fears for the future. Likewise, when Sharon tells her husband Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Sharon’s feisty older sister Ernestine (Teyronah Parris), their instant celebratory tone brings a fresh dose of levity to Jenkins’ growing filmography: Despite the social and economic hardships the family faces, their unity becomes a centerpiece to the story.
Fonny’s family doesn’t take the news quite as well. Still reeling from their son’s uncertain fate, his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) snaps, instigating a sharp reprimand from her husband (Michael Beach). As the two households engage in a tense war of words, Jenkins’ script combines sassiness with rage, landing on a sharp tone pitched between desperation and unexpected levity. Tish’s world exists at that surprising intersection.
With more vitality and humor than “Moonlight,” Jenkins’ reliance on the original text opens up the filmmaker’s style, but he also turns the material into a broader meditation on Baldwin’s broader concerns. The author’s dynamic characterizations of black life drew on distinctive language and precise imagery that defined his sharp critical voice, and it surfaces throughout Jenkins’ drama. On more than one occasion, he injects Baldwin’s fixations into the narrative with black-and-white stills of African American struggles that create a stunning historical backdrop for Tish’s intimate challenges. In one striking moment, Jenkins quotes Gordon Parks’ iconic Life magazine cover photo “Ellen Crying,” an image weighted with the ramifications of an impoverished black life grappling for stability. That’s “Beale Street” in a nutshell.
For the most part, Jenkins sticks to Tish’s personal observations about her relationship with Fonny, with romantic snippets that invite readymade comparisons to Wong Kar Wai. However, while the Hong Kong auteur’s movies focus on similar ineffable desires, Jenkins merges his most potent images with a voiceover that puts them in context. As the pair gaze into each other’s eyes, Tish observes, “He was the most beautiful person I’d seen in my life,” and their matching expressions — Jenkins uses the subtle shifts of facial muscles like grand narrative devices — grounds that observation in a visible truth.
The filmmaker’s ambition keeps widening as Tish’s world opens up: When she describes her thankless job as a perfume sampler in a beaming white shopping mall, her fake grin fills the frame, and she describes “smiling ’til my back teeth ache.” When she loses her virginity to Fonny at his apartment, Jenkins cuts to a record running to the end of a smooth jazz tune. These indelible rhythms define the movie’s gradual pace as it dovetails from one moment to the next.
There is a real plot at the center of this collage, surrounding the two families’ ongoing attempts to fight for Fonny’s exoneration. That battle culminates in a dramatic trip to Puerto Rico, where Tish’s mother travels to track down the rape victim in a risky attempt to save Fonny from further persecution. The sequence has the superb tension of moody noir, but King adds a degree of credible suspense by imbuing Sharon with a conviction that she can pull off the scheme at all costs. The results at once riveting and fraught with sadness. King owns every second she’s onscreen, as Sharon fights to contain her rage with wavering confidence.
However, Jenkins seems the least at ease with these conventional narrative beats. His two previous features, the chatty romance “Medicine for Melancholy” and “Moonlight,” evaded more traditional plot development. “If Beale Street Could Talk” stalls about halfway through with less involving developments and stilted roles for supporting characters (including a benevolent waiter played by Diego Luna and a Jewish real estate agent played by Dave Franco), but it always regains its footing with another entrancing observation. When the ever-reliable Brian Tyree Henry shows up as Fonny’s long-lost pal, the camera lingers on his face as he recalls jail time and bemoans persecution from racist police officers; for a moment, the entire movie hovers in the confines of his grief. “Beale Street” has more to say about collective emotional hurdles than anything else. One recurring motif finds Layne and James gazing at each other across prison glass, and the lyrical ramifications of this constant boundary — an institutional hurdle beyond anything they can control — cuts deep.
Those familiar with the source material will be surprised to find that the movie arrives at a new conclusion, including a time jump that provides more finality to the ultimate fate of these characters. It’s a surprising choice that takes the story in a whole new direction even as it leaves the next chapter in Fonny and Tish’s story unclear. Ultimately, the movie suggests that the couple is fated to keep chasing an ideal just beyond their reach, but worth pursuing all the same.
Annapurna Pictures will release “If Beale Street Could Talk” on Friday, December 14.
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