From this adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, it’s obvious that Barry Jenkins has great reverence for the author’s work—a bit too much, perhaps. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is fastidious and elegant, but also extremely languid. The dreamlike quality Jenkins brings to the material is certainly evocative, but it minimizes the anger that underlies the narrative—and retains its topicality today—instead emphasizing the melancholy resignation that also infuses the tale. That creative choice, while defensible, is also provocative.
In Jenkins’ hands, “Beale Street” is essentially a thoughtful, visually striking elegy to a beautiful love that’s cruelly thwarted by a legal system perverted by racial bigotry. The lovers are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who are introduced at nineteen and twenty-two, serenely proceeding hand-in-hand in a blissful riverside walk. Flashbacks and inserts interspersed throughout, along with voiceover by Tish lifted, for the most part, directly from the novel, tell us that they’ve known one another since childhood (they’re played as kids by Milanni Mines and Ethan Barrett), and are now planning to get married.
But almost immediately the scene shifts to the interior of a jail, where Fonny, a sculptor, is incarcerated on charges of rape. Visiting him there, Tish informs him through the visitors’ glass that she’s pregnant. She’s also told her mother Sharon (Regina King), and together they inform her father Joe (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), who are overjoyed after their initial shock.
The four of them then invite Fonny’s parents over to tell them the news. His father Frank (Michael Beach) responds with enthusiasm, but his censorious church-lady mother (Aunjanue Ellis), who’s always thought Tish beneath her boy, expresses withering contempt, as does his equally judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne). The sequence ends in recriminations as Frank explodes against his wife and Sharon and Ernestine come to Tish’s defense.
Gradually the truth about Fonny’s arrest is revealed. He’s been framed by a snarling, racist cop named Bell (Ed Skrein), whom he offended while out walking with Tish. His innocence is beyond doubt: he has an alibi, since he and Tish were with an old friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), at the time of the assault. But as we learn from the long conversation between the two men, Daniel has just been paroled from prison himself—he served a couple of years for car theft, though he can’t drive—and his testimony is simply dismissed in the face of a positive identification from the victim, Victoria (Emily Rios), who’s fled the States for her native Puerto Rico. Eventually Fonny’s lawyer Hayward (Finn Wittrock), who’s taken the case as a matter of principle despite the misgiving of his partners, tracks her down, but when Sharon travels to the island to beg her to recant the ID—one clearly imposed on her during a line-up—Victoria breaks down and refuses.
The message of how the system is stacked against black men is driven home by Fonny’s story, but the film doesn’t ignore occasional rays of light that occur during his time with Tish: the intervention of an elderly woman when Bell first tries to take Fonny in on a flimsy pretext, for example, or the willingness of a young building owner (Dave Franco, in a gentle turn that’s quite a departure from his usual in-your-face style) to rent the couple a loft when they’re been repeatedly refused by others. And, of course, the flashbacks, including the scenes of their lovemaking, are suffused with tenderness.
There are moments of considerable power in the film—the tense scene with Ellis, the confrontation between Sharon and Victoria—but for the most part Jenkins presents the events, however tense, in a restrained, understated fashion and at a deliberate pace. Together with production designer Mark Friedberg, costumer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, cinematographer James Laxton and editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, he frames the visuals with scrupulous care, paying particular attention to shading and juxtaposing the colors for optimal effect. The morose score by Nicholas Britell, as well as some soulful pop interjections, add to the somber tone.
The acting is of a piece with that approach as well. Though there are sequences of overt passion (as in Victoria’s outburst of anguish), the cast generally keep emotions in check. James shows a few flashes of fury, but usually he’s a picture of suppressed anger, and his scenes with Layne are marked by sheer sweetness. Layne depicts Tish as shy and subdued even at the most tortuous moments (the childbirth sequence apart, of course). Although Ellis is allowed—even encouraged—to take her holier-than-thou mother to the point of caricature, the rest of the cast—even King—offer controlled performances similar to those of Layne and James, true to Jenkins’ take on the material as a rueful meditation on how things are rather than an impassioned howl over that cruel reality.
Some might find that approach as entirely too soft-grained and genteel to do full justice to Baldwin’s book, preferring a more overtly outraged depiction of such a sadly common tragedy. On its own terms, however, this quietly mournful vision is a perfectly valid take on the novel: Memphis’ Beale Street, after all, is inextricably linked with the blues, and what it lacks in immediate visceral impact the film makes up for in lingering emotional resonance, in the recognition that Baldwin’s observations about the plight of young black men in America are no less true nearly half a century later than they were when he penned them. Indeed, they may be even more so.