“If you’ve trusted love this far, don’t panic. Trust it all the way.”
After the sublime success of 2016’s Moonlight, ardent fans of director Barry Jenkins’ work have waited patiently for his next offering to the silver screen. Jenkins’ third feature takes the form of If Beale Street Could Talk, a striking, compassionately-crafted adaptation of James Baldwin’s eponymous novel. The film marks the fifth time Baldwin’s writing has been adapted for the screen, after the most recent BAFTA-winning I am Not Your Negro, proving once again that the fabled activist’s prose lends itself richly to the cinematic medium. After tragically missing Beale Street at last year’s London Film Festival, I had done my time – and boy, was it worth the wait.
In 1970s New York, Tish and Fonny are young and in love, searching for a place to call their own. Their youthful bliss is shattered when Fonny is arrested on a sexual assault charge, accused by Victoria Rogers, a young Puerto Rican woman he has never seen before. But Victoria Rogers is not the enemy. The enemy is a racist judicial system that would have a black man ripped from his family for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Frightened and pregnant with Fonny’s baby, Tish must fight to prove her husband’s innocence and reunite her family in time for the birth of their child.
As a non-linear narrative, If Beale Street Could Talk presents its events out of sequence, beginning with Fonny’s incarceration and allowing the audience to piece together the events that preceded. But this is not a whodunit crime thriller; Jenkins’ film does not surrender to a climactic court scene nor interrogate Fonny’s moral character. What transpires is first and foremost a love story, one that faces the many obstacles of injustice. The non-sequential temporality of the narrative has a dreamy, montage-like effect; Jenkins solicits emotional affect through fleeting memories in Tish and Fonny’s life together that intersect with the present. The pair exist out of time and without care, suspended in each other’s gaze.
If Beale Street Could Talk flows with an emotional energy that binds its characters together in love and pain, a testament to the ties of family – both blood and chosen. The guiding light of the narrative is KiKi Layne as Tish, sweet and naïve yet steadfast in her beliefs and not to be underestimated. Though Tish is wise beyond her years, she is also allowed to be incredibly vulnerable, always able to lean on her family for support. This is where Regina King comes into her own as Tish’s mother Sharon – she is patient, fierce, and gentle in such necessary balance. Stephan James is wonderfully charismatic as Fonny, always the optimist, but his suffering is betrayed by the glassy look in his eyes as he holds the prison phone to his ear, the precious connection to his love. There is no distancing yourself from these characters – they stare right out of the screen with an unflinching vulnerability.
Yet another harmonious thread that ties the narrative together is Nicholas Britell’s transcendent score. Britell manages to capture the emotional complexity of a scene in the simple strike of a chord. Deep and ruminative, the music feels at once like a warm embrace and a melancholy good-bye. If Beale Street Could Talk does not try to claim that love has all the answers, or that love will prevail in justice, but we might find some strength to trust it all the same.
by Megan Wilson