'If Beale Street Could Talk': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Bold, bluesy and beautiful.
11/30/2018

Barry Jenkins follows his Oscar winner, 'Moonlight,' with this adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel about a young Harlem couple divided by a false criminal accusation.

As he demonstrated to unforgettable effect in Moonlight, writer-director Barry Jenkins is a ravishing visual stylist but also a storyteller of transfixing emotional intensity, capable of layering fathomless depths into his characters, just as often with a silent gaze as with words. Those same gifts are applied to his lustrous adaptation of the 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, an intimate evocation of African-American lives ruptured by injustice that’s faithful almost to a fault to the unique voice of its author, James Baldwin. If the movie’s slow burn seems to build toward a powerful release that doesn’t materialize, the sheer beauty of its craft and the heartfelt feeling behind every scene nonetheless command attention.

What Jenkins is doing here is nothing like the scalding plunge into black history that Raoul Peck achieved in his riveting 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on a Baldwin manuscript. His source belongs to the more poetic, humanistic side of Baldwin’s writings, and while the story centers around racial discrimination and unjust incarceration, giving it ongoing relevance, the focus is more personal than political.

The film is about black dignity and resilience in the face of pain, but also about the unifying power of love as a survival mechanism. It celebrates the fortifying connection between a man and a woman, but also the deep ties of family, friendship and community. There’s no shortage of despair in the drama, but there’s also uncrushable hope, and it’s that uplifting quality that should draw a receptive audience to the Annapurna release.

The love of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), who narrates the story as she does in the book, and 22-year-old Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), a woodwork sculptor who goes by Fonny, leaps off the screen from the first frames. Shot from a swooning height by James Laxton in images luxuriantly saturated in warm color, the couple strolls hand-in-hand through a park and down some stairs to look out over the Hudson River, right about the time Tish reveals that Fonny is in jail.

“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” says Tish in dialogue lifted intact from the novel, like much of the distinctly literary voiceover narration. The action shifts to a prison visit in which she tells him she’s pregnant; his gobsmacked moment of uncertainty is followed by the infectious spread of a joyous smile and then laughter. The fact that they’re not yet married seems immaterial. With absolute confidence, Tish assures Fonny they’ll have him out of there before the baby is born, and the force of their love seems so strong that neither we nor Fonny doubt her.

Fonny has been accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman despite having an alibi that put him nowhere near the scene of the crime. As Tish and her family fight to clear Fonny’s name, Jenkins steers the narrative forward, while interweaving scenes from the blossoming of their relationship as they set their future together in motion. This juxtaposition of their tender romantic idyll, including the first time they sleep together, with the anxiety of every setback in their legal battle gives the film weight alongside its soaring sensuality. And the parallel timelines are handled with assured fluidity by editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders.

The palpable chemistry between Layne and James makes Tish and Fonny indisputably the heart of the film, even if Jenkins has romanticized them so much he’s softened their edges. The two seem to float in slow motion in the scenes before trouble strikes, often suggesting a direct homage to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The prettiness of it all makes them almost a fairy-tale couple — even Fonny’s dump of an apartment is lit like a magical cave. In some ways, this dramatically undercuts the raw deal they’re handed by a system that chews up guys like Fonny with crushing regularity. The key scenes that give shape to the story and keep it real almost invariably involve other characters.

A high point comes early when Tish tells her ineffably grounded mother Sharon (Regina King) about the pregnancy and she takes it on board with neither surprise nor alarm. Sharon then helps Tish break the news after dinner to her good-humored father Joe (Colman Domingo) and hilariously outspoken sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), both of whom are similarly supportive. With just a few swift brushstrokes, we know these people and recognize the iron-clad strength of their bonds.

With typical take-charge decisiveness, Sharon instructs Joe to call up Fonny’s family and invite them over to receive the news, bracing for drama. So while the happy response of Tish’s folks is still ringing in the air, we get the damning judgment of Fonny’s holy-roller mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and his uptight sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne), none of whom have much time for Tish. Only Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach) takes it in stride. This is a knockout scene, with anger and violence but also salty humor, much of it courtesy of Parris’ fabulous Ernestine.

The centerpiece of the movie is a long exchange around a kitchen table between Fonny and his old buddy Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just done two years in the slammer on charges of car theft, despite being unable to drive. Over the sound of sleepy jazz horns, the two men move from breezy small talk to somber confessions of their fears and frustrations, as Laxton’s camera shifts between them in searching closeups. The way in which the terrific Henry drop’s Daniel’s cheery bravado and reveals how scared his experience has made him is tremendously effective.

Arguably the most stunning dramatic moment comes when Sharon flies to Puerto Rico where the rape victim (Emily Rios) has fled, in a futile attempt to get her to acknowledge that she was manipulated into picking Fonny out of a lineup by a racist cop (Ed Skrein). The marvelous King is a quiet powerhouse throughout, but she’s at her shattering best here, and it’s rewarding to see this superlative actress — so good in TV roles on Southland, The Leftovers and American Crime — being put to strong use in a movie again.

Perhaps because Tish and Fonny, as appealing and frequently moving as Layne and James are, don’t have a scene of comparable impact, the conclusion feels soft, hastily wrapped up. But many will find the choice of sorrowful resignation over angry indignation a valid one.

Even if the climax is underpowered, the drama is fully inhabited and alive with vibrant texture. The exquisite early-‘70s production and costume design, together with the graceful, always meticulously calibrated movement of Laxton’s camera makes for a uniquely seductive visual experience. Rarely have faces been photographed in such loving detail.

In terms of the almost blanket underscoring, Jenkins’ use of music recalls some of Spike Lee’s collaborations with Terence Blanchard. Combining Nicholas Britell’s caressing string compositions with deep cuts by artists like Miles Davis, Al Green, Nina Simone and John Coltrane, the sound is lush to the point of distraction at times, but it certainly adds to the intoxicating pleasure.

Distribution: Annapurna Pictures
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Emily Rios, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Plan B Entertainment, PASTEL

Director-screenwriter: Barry Jenkins, based on the book by James Baldwin
Producers: Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, Barry Jenkins, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Megan Ellison
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Sarah Esberg, Chelsea Barnard, Jillian Longnecker, Mark Ceryak, Caroline Jaczko
Director of photography: James Laxton
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editors: Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders
Casting: Cindy Tolan
Sales: Annapurna International
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)

Rated R; 119 minutes