“The thing that grabbed me about this book is that these guys are soulmates. They are just soulmates. And I just hadn’t really seen or read many narratives about young, black soulmates,” director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins said of his latest film If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name.
The film opens as a quotation from the late Baldwin shines across the screen, “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” The quotation reverberates throughout every moment of the next two hours. It makes clear the story’s relevancy: If Beale Street Could Talk is not meant to be a film that exists in singularity, it is a vignette of a narrative and a people much grander than those on the screen.
The quotation fades away as Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) walk hand in hand. They wear clothing that matches invertedly. The camera moves in to intense close ups of the two, their skin yielding a radiance so luxuriant they seem to glow. Their desirous expressions fill the screen and the audience is warmly invited into the intimacy of this moment. Time ceases to matter. This moment seems to exist only for them. For these few opening moments, the soulmates are allowed to exist in a vacuum. They are untouchable.
“If you really really connect to the love that’s in Beale Street, the injustice and the pain and the unfairness then affects you even more because we would hope you’re rooting for this love,” Kiki Layne said in an interview with the Voice. “But then when you see all the things that are attacking it, then you have to also realize that those same things are still attacking black people and black love today.”
These opening moments, and some of the ones that follow, reveal Black love to the audience, unscathed and pure. The love in this story is not just romantic—it’s the love of family, both by blood and by choice. It’s all encompassing. But such a love, despite its strength and purity, cannot exist in a vacuum forever.
In a flash, the audience meets the soulmates all over again. This time their radiance has been stolen. They do not stand under the light of a clear blue sky, but sit underneath the flickering fluorescent lights of a prison. The gray walls surround them and a plexiglass window sits in between. It’s here, amidst this dreariness, that we learn that Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s baby. The excitement of the news allows a short moment of reprieve before the room comes crashing back down on them. Fonny has been accused of sexual assault by a woman he has never met. He was placed in a lineup by a racist, vindictive police officer and has little hope in the way of legal recourse.
This shock is laced throughout the film. For brief periods, the audience and the characters are allowed to breathe, to laugh, to love. Then, before one can allow the warmth of these intimate moments to fill them, they are thrust back into the cold shock of reality. As the opening Baldwin quotation reminds us, this story is a part of something greater: the story of black people in America.
The film is at its strongest when it allows the actors’ performances to shine through. With all of the bells and whistles of a Barry Jenkins’ production there is always the risk of the actors getting lost in the artistry, but Jenkins seems to be cognizant of this. Visually the film is gorgeous, but the intensity of its emotion crescendos when the camera zeros in on an actor. This is when Stephan James, who delivers the film’s best performance, shines the brightest. It’s these moments, with James staring straight down the barrel of the lens, pleading with the camera, that the emotion climaxes.
Acting opposite James is the film’s breakout star, Kiki Layne. She plays Tish with her eyes wide and her voice soft but has an unspoken strength about her. If Beale Street Could Talk is Layne’s first role in a feature film, but one would not be able to tell while watching her performance. She has a relaxed confidence about her, one that was palpable even on the day of her interview with the Voice. She sat upright and poised, showing no signs of fatigue despite the chaos of her first press tour.
Regina King plays the role of Sharon Rivers, Tish’s mother, with her usual familiar and comforting air. There is a delicate balance of tenderness and strength to her character. It is Sharon who travels to Puerto Rico to meet with Fonny’s accuser Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) in a desperate attempt to exonerate him. Victoria wears the wound of her assault on her face. “The audience should have to look at this trauma, you know, and how it’s affecting this woman. Because I think what Baldwin was writing about is how our performance, our roles in these systems affects everyone,” Jenkins said of the scene. Sharon speaks to Victoria with a maternal kindness, repeatedly calling her “daughter.” This is not a tactic of manipulation, but a genuine expression of compassion.
“What I’m most moved by is, every step of the way, this connection amongst the women in the story, where no one denies that this thing has happened to this woman,” Jenkins said. “There is just something between the two of them. There’s an empathy that kind of goes both ways, and there’s a trauma that goes both ways.”
Despite the beauty of both the performances and the direction, If Beale Street Could Talk is not a perfect film. There are moments when the film zooms out, incorporating imagery from outside the narrative and elucidating historical context. It’s in these moments where the film feels the clunkiest. Instead of allowing the narrative to stand on its own as a microcosm of the black experience and a smaller chunk of an ultimately greater story of black people in America, these history lessons feel didactic and pull one out of the story.
The film’s other flaw is mostly due to the limitations set by the medium itself. Adapting the rich and intricate text presented by Baldwin in the novel into a two hour film is a gargantuan task. Words on a page are far less expensive to fill than movie screens. For this reason, there are moments when the narrative feels rushed, especially in its third act.
With that said, If Beale Street Could Talk is a truly extraordinary film. It is sentimental without being syrupy, beautiful without being extravagant, hopeful without being naive. It is an elegant and a stunning adaptation of a story written by one of the greatest novelists America has ever known.