Follow-ups can be painful and paralyzing; just ask Barry Jenkins. Long before If Beale Street Could Talk, the filmmaker found himself the recipient of wide critical acclaim for 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, but the barely-seen movie didn’t lead to anything more substantial. It was almost by chance that Jenkins was able to make a second film — his 2016 masterpiece, Moonlight. Eight years is a long time; such a gap would have snuffed out many promising careers.
After the triumphant success of Moonlight (and its wild, unfortunate Oscar ride), Jenkins future was secured, at least in the near term. He set his sights on something grander, selecting an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. His version of Beale Street bursts with raw emotions and desires; the story is a tragedy, to be sure, but Jenkins’ strategy is always to extract every last drop of beauty from his material. As moving as If Beale Street Could Talk is, it leaves one wanting to know what wonders Jenkins will come up with next.
The film details the breakdown of two black families in Harlem, but first we’re treated to great joy: Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are in love. The couple have been friends since they were small children, but over time their bonds of friendship have turned into something stronger and more profound. The film spends its early moments just letting us revel in the burgeoning romance between the two.
This is also when Jenkins introduces us to his major collaborators. He and longtime cinematographer James Laxton wash Tish and Fonny in lovely blues and ochres that suggest their love exists in some rarefied plane rather than the humdrum world we’re used to. The two lovers are often filmed looking straight into the camera in ways that make us participants in their passion. It’s also hard to miss the fact that their outfits tend to be color-coordinated in striking and meaningful ways; costume designer Caroline Eselin finds great beauty where others would have settled for drab, working-class getups. Tying everything together is Nicholas Britell’s elegant and touching score, which is particularly moving in its themes of romantic and carnal love. Britell also scored Moonlight, and he and Jenkins seem to be perfectly attuned to the same wavelength. He has written the year’s best film score by a mile.
If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t quite as pristine as Moonlight, but it’s just as moving, and even more beautiful.
We have plenty of time to revel in the music and beauty of the romance scenes, but things quickly sour. We learn that Fonny has been imprisoned, accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman — but the story is complicated. The arresting officer had a previous run-in with Fonny, and seems to have been gunning for him ever since. On top of that, the accuser has disappeared — she’s gone back to Puerto Rico, meaning she can’t be cross-examined at Fonny’s future trial. While he’s trapped behind bars, Tish and her mother (Regina King, in a career highlight) must find a way to clear his name, including flying down to Puerto Rico to make an appeal to the potentially wronged woman (Emily Rios).
It’s easy to assume that Jenkins’ adaptation was updated to fit modern interests and social concerns. The role of systemic racism is omnipresent, though not explicitly noted. The ways in which women who have been raped are ignored or shuffled into the background are on full display. Jenkins is also keenly aware of the ways that the prison system eats up young black men, something he quite eloquently explored in Moonlight. His version of If Beale Street Could Talk is remarkably similar to Baldwin’s novel — in fact, much of the dialogue is taken straight from the book. (If you’re adapting a master, why change it?)
The way Baldwin’s story resonates today is a testament to how forward-thinking the writer was on many social issues. He was (and Jenkins is) also a master at weaving these details into a compelling story. There’s never a moment where the novel or the film threaten to turn into an essay on the ways black people are affected by the justice system. Everything remains grounded in the story of Tish and Fonny.
Still, Jenkins doesn’t try to tone down his message in favor of simple platitudes. There’s a chilling scene featuring Bryan Tyree Henry of Atlanta fame where he basically steals the film. Playing Daniel, who has just returned from a prison stint, he takes Fonny up on an offer of a meal and cigarettes (this is before Fonny’s own legal troubles). The two reminisce in the dark, cramped apartment where Fonny and Tish spend their time. Things inevitably turn to Daniel’s prison sentence, which he claims was for a crime he didn’t commit. As he describes his time in jail, his words become less concrete, yet paradoxically more evocative. He speaks of the fear that prison puts in a man, and we see all that fear in his face. As he speaks, Britell creates a furious maelstrom of dark strings and processed saxophones. Even the lighting briefly darkens, in a rare break from the film’s realist style. Henry is only onscreen for a few minutes, but they are immensely impactful. Strangely, the closest cinematic parallel for Henry’s speech is Robert Shaw’s darkly poetic tale of the doomed men of the Indianapolis in Jaws.
As beautiful as If Beale Street Could Talk is, and as mellifluous as much of the dialogue is, Jenkins hits a few rough patches that didn’t jar his previous film. When shortly after his arrest Tish reveals that she’s pregnant with Fonny’s child, her father (Colman Domingo) erupts in cheers of joy that seem too rough for this delicate of a film. His acting is broad as a barn, and the words ring false. It’s possibly an example of Baldwin’s more literary dialogue that should have been substituted for something a bit more low key. Domingo makes every gesture huge, as if he’s performing in a play and trying to reach the back row; when he’s projected on a movie screen, it all seems a bit much. There’s also an awkward scene with Dave Franco as a Jewish landlord who offers a loft to Fonny and Tish when so many others have turned them down. Franco’s mannerisms are so established that when he displays them here we expect him to launch into the kind of comedy he usually specializes in. When he doesn’t do that, it mimics the uncomfortable feeling of being on the verge of sneezing without ever crossing the threshold.
Still, these are small moments, and they only stand out because Jenkins’ previous film had no such faults. If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t quite as pristine as Moonlight, but it’s just as moving, and even more beautiful. It’s still a shame to think of how long Jenkins’ went after his first movie before returning to filmmaking, but if it allowed him to make two great films in such quick succession, maybe it was all worth it.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Produced by Megan Ellison, Dede Gardner, Barry Jenkins, Jeremy Kleiner, Sara Murphy, Adele Romanski
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins
Based on the novel by James Baldwin
Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris
Music by Nicholas Britell
Cinematography by James Laxton
Edited by Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders
Production Companies: Annapurna Pictures | PASTEL | Plan B Entertainment
Distributed by Annapurna Pictures | Stage 6 Films