Who would want to follow up Moonlight? Barry Jenkins doubles down by following one of the best received films of the twenty first century with an adaptation of one of the best novelists of the twentieth. The result could be as good as the sum of its parts. Taking on Baldwin’s slim novel If Beale Street Could Talk, first part coming-of-age romance second part legal thriller, Jenkins focusses on the former to create a texture of experience that Baldwin reveals in both a mundane and spiritual light in his novel.
Jenkins’ aesthetic, influenced by the cinematic portraiture of Lynne Ramsey and Claire Denis, as well as owing to the soulfulness of Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is faithful to the tenderness and lyricism of Baldwin, whilst dialogue and voiceover must do the heavy lifting of his searing and cynical wit. Handheld slow-motion shots, so easy to fudge, elevate into the transcendent experience of understanding Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) growing in love and admiration for each other in 1970s Harlem, on Beale Street. The subways and New York streets become like theatres for the young people to perform their wonder at each other. To steal a line from the novel, narrated by Tish: “We moved in a silence which was music from everywhere”. Nicholas Brittel’s score lives up to this statement.
Brian Tyree Henry, using the same inflections of Paper Boi in Atlanta but with a totally different character, delivers a tone perfect performance as a childhood friend of Fonny’s who has just been released from prison but doesn’t feel free. It is a painful cautionary tale of how a black person in America can be ground down. When we see Fonny in a similar predicament—in prison—Jenkins’ metaphysical style comes under strain. Both narrative and style embody the struggle of depicting two lovers as one when they are separated by several inches of glass.
At this point in the novel Baldwin departs from Fonny’s imprisonment to narrate the idiosyncratically exciting story of Tish’s Mother (Regina King) travelling to Puerto Rico to track down the victim of the crime that Fonny has been accused of, allegedly hidden by the prosecution, to get a confession that Fonny is innocent. Jenkins eschews the thriller element of Baldwin in favour of spiritual confrontation and long dialogue scenes in Puerto Rico. Conversely, it feels like Baldwin made the more cinematic choice with the material. Yet by refusing what Baldwin has put on a plate for him—a thrilling plot—Jenkins mirrors his characters and compassionately devotes himself to their theme of love as preservation.
Like Fonny and Tish’s love, If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that will live in memory. It is a great skill to capture moments between two people with a sense of urgency yet as though their togetherness is being memorialised. This feeling is due to the lack of a present afforded to characters like Tish and Fonny in America; the genius of Barry Jenkins is how he acknowledges this reality but rejects the notion through form. Like in Moonlight, he joins together what is supposed to be separate.
- Theo Macdonald