Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed follow up to the entrancing Moonlight is a lyrical and heartbreaking adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, a richly layered and visural depiction of the black experience in America.
In 70s Harlem Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) reflects on her relationship with Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) that spans her entire life, from childhood friends, to young lovers, to parents. Tish’s voiceover carefully explains the situation she is now in, trying to free the wrongly accused Fonny from prison after he was jailed for a rape he did not commit.
It’s hard to write about this film in a way that feels worthy of the film itself. I’ve typed and re-wrote this paragraph about ten times but it’s hard to get the right words down on paper.
It truly feels like a literary adaptation in a way that many films fail to do. The voiceover of Tish marries the non-linear timeline and the words of Baldwin that have been translated from the page to the screen. There is beauty and angry and passion seeping into the very syllables of every line – from Tish and Fonny’s pure and true love for each other, to Sharon and Joseph Rivers’ (Regina King and Colman Domingo, respectively) determination to free an innocent man, to the righteous indignation of Fonny’s female relatives.
Jenkins has a stunning eye, as displayed in Moonlight and the beauty and devastation of Harlem in the seventies is in full glory on screen: the streets dazzle under the lamplights on a rainy evening, Tish’s body glows as she sleeps with Fonny for the first time, Ernestine arrives in sun-drenched Puerto Rico determined to discover the truth. The set design and costumes capture a sense of time and place while still managing to be more than a visual marker of time. Joseph, selling stolen goods out the back of a truck to help Fonny, in a long coat and hat and a cigarette in his mouth as smoke from the city billows around him, cuts a stylish, old-fashioned figure doing what he needs to help his son-inl-law. Meanwhile, in the “meeting” of the families, Tish and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) relax in brightly patterned blouses and coloured trousers, while Fonny’s sisters Arienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne) sit upright in staid dresses, rigid in their disapproval.
The film does not depict the arrest of Fonny, leaving simply a ellipsis of time between his last meeting with the racist officer with a grudge (Ed Skrien) and Tish’s visits to prision. This decision to deny the violence a time on screen that Fonny endures both by the police and by other inmates simply makes it more powerful. In an era where videos of young men being harassed, attacked and killed by the police in the US appear almost daily online it is a clear relief not have that on screen in sharp definition. It also does not reduce Fonny to a young black man being beaten, but instead shifts that focus to him imagining, or reminiscing on a sculpture he was working on in his basement apartment as a form of escape from the cold cell he occupies.
It might be difficult to find If Beale Street Could Talk in cinemas as it comes to the end of it’s run in the UK, but search it out if you can. A moving, passionate tale of love against the odds.