James Baldwin was eloquent and poetic; he was also a complex and frustrated man who expressed his feelings in both essays and works of fiction. Impassioned filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who won an Oscar for his breakthrough feature Moonlight, has translated Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk for the screen with newcomers in the leading roles and scored a bull’s-eye.
This is s a story of star-crossed lovers who began as childhood best friends but eventually realize they are soulmates. But fate, which seldom smiles on black characters in this period, deals them a terrible blow: Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish discovers that she is carrying their baby. There are further complications, primarily from his judgmental family, but the core story deals with his incarceration and her determination to carry on, no matter what. Jenkins presents us with a searingly honest story; there’s nothing glib or superficial here.
It’s hard to believe that this is KiKi Layne’s first screen role—her soulful eyes and expressive face immediately draw you in. Stefan James is her equal, breathing life into a manly (not macho) character who expresses love in its purest form. Both of these young actors have a warmth and likability you simply cannot teach. They are surrounded by a superior cast, including the always-impressive Regina King as the young girl’s rock-steady mother, who is ready to do whatever it takes to lift the burdens placed on her daughter’s shoulders. Every role is well-cast, with notable contributions from Aunjanue Ellis and, in a surprising and whimsical part, Dave Franco. A lengthy dialogue scene between James and Brian Tyree Henry, as an old friend who’s just finished serving time, is a tour-de-force of acting, camerawork, and editing.
Jenkins has chosen to tell this story in a blur of past and present, parceling out exposition in a canny way that allows us to experience the happiness the leading couple feels as they become intimate and seek out a place to live. The tone of the film is not one of doom and gloom. Still, it does feel like a punch in the gut because Jenkins doesn’t flinch from channeling the anger in Baldwin’s novel. His Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell and editor Joi McMillon come through again—he with a score that perfectly suits the drama onscreen, and she with careful editing that paces the film beautifully.
If Beale Street Could Talk is strong medicine, seen through the prism of a humanistic filmmaker. It also serves as a star-making launch pad for two talented actors who won’t remain unknown for long.