Award-winning writer/director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) stuns with his adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, making plain the struggle of young African-Americans in the early 1970s. Tackling societal pressure, social mores, gender roles, abuse of power, religious hypocrisy, and – above all – love, If Beale Street Could Talk is a gorgeously-shot and acted film, relevant on either side of its timeframe. It’s a film which wishes for its characters – and the audience as well – to stay hopeful in the face of the insurmountable, its force speaking through its quiet tones and its engrossing construction.
Picture Christopher Nolan’s Memento, only with the entire film being in linear motion, but still being told simultaneously in two interweaving parts from the middle and beginning of the story. This storytelling device allows us to gradually learn about the relationship between best friends Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). Tish’s voiceover imparts a sweet melancholy as she describes how they started off knowing each other as little children, getting to the point where she falls in love with him as a young adult. It’s a love that is whole and pure, each of them respecting and adoring the other.
Layne and James lend an ethereal quality to their characters, with their inner radiance shining beacon-like whenever they’re together. The world is full of possibilities and joy, and the film is a calm, sane place to be when they’re holding each other’s hand, making love in a small apartment, or even so much as sharing a meal with each other. As they discover the world, they discover each other and their own selves, Laxton’s camera keeping their faces and bodies in crisp focus while everything else in the background is beyond the camera’s comprehension and out of focus.
That’s the B-story.
The A-story details what happens after we suddenly find out two things: Fonny’s been arrested for rape, and Tish is pregnant out of wedlock. Fonny, jailed for a crime he did not commit and can prove it, doesn’t know about his impending fatherhood. Tish hesitates to tell her family, but father Joseph (Colman Domingo), mother Sharon (Regina King), and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) all throw themselves behind her. It’s Fonny’s family – well, his claimed-to-be-Saved mother and sisters, to be exact – who take it upon themselves to look down their noses at the Rivers family, calling upon the worst perversions of God’s word to shame and humiliate Tish and to excoriate Fonny for being evil. But the Rivers family isn’t having any of that; “Unbow your head, sister,” Ernestine says to Tish in an empowering, memorable moment.
Tish, along with her family, navigates the steps to motherhood while trying to seek justice for the unjustly-imprisoned Fonny. Even the lawyer hired to represent Fonny sees the flaws in the system that aren’t providing any avenues for his exoneration. On top of that, Fonny’s accuser has fled the country, his arrest hanging solely on the fact that a black man raped a female Puerto Rican immigrant, with the arresting officer claiming Fonny to be in the vicinity. And as brave a face as Fonny and Tish can put on for each other, the façade’s starting to crack and they don’t know if they can hold on.
What Barry Jenkins gets so right about his adaptation of Baldwin’s novel is the despair from the seeming futility of a long fight. He mixes the joy of true love and the pain of a family drowning under the weight of their situation so agilely and beautifully, it’s hard to see If Beale Street Could Talk as a depressing film. There’s hope amid the wreckage wrought by happenstance and racism, embodied marvelously in KiKi Layne and Stephan James’ stirring performances. As the Rivers family matriarch, Regina King nails this film to the floor with a consistent presence and rhythm, her staid countenance rarely betraying the panic behind her eyes. She has to be strong for her pregnant child and her scheming (but well-intentioned) husband, so much so that she can barely scrape some of the leftover strength together for herself. By God, she does; you can feel King’s towering support throughout this entire movie.
Cinematographer James Laxton helps us witness the shared experience with long, involved takes highlighting the proximity of the actors’ bodies, binding them together in a frame without cuts. Unbroken panning and tracking shots keep us tied to pivotal moments – conversations, bits of stageplay – to underscore the intimacy of the shot’s subjects. The first shot is startling in its simplicity, yet damning in its social implications; we see a young black couple walking, and the camera moves above to make us literally and figuratively look down on them. We don’t know who these people are, nor do we know what they’re doing, but we’re made to feel a bit voyeuristic, a bit like an employee who needs to follow someone they think might steal something from their store. It’s happened to me before, memories of which were evoked by this single shot.
It’s only when oppression and separation set in that editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders start skipping more rapidly to the next cut. It’s not a jumbled, frantic kind of edit; the majority of these cuts serve to drastically change perspective on whatever event is taking place. Another interesting choice is made regarding perspective, with no continuous shot being exactly the same as the iteration before it. Usually, when two people are conversing, the camera stays on one subject, then cuts to a shot of the next person before cutting back to the original subject in the same position. Jenkins often chooses not to go back to the original position, shifting the intent of the scene and our thoughts about what has just transpired. It’s these little bits of magic which make If Beale Street Could Talk a remarkable work of art, a beautiful film about turbulent circumstances.