If there’s a defining image in the small but remarkable filmography of Barry Jenkins, it’s of someone staring, with tractor-beam intensity, right at the camera lens, as though trying to express the full scope of who they are—their very soul, maybe—through one penetrating gaze. What does this signature shot really convey but the powerful desire for connection that’s at the heart of every movie the writer-director has made? It was there in his ramshackle debut, Medicine For Melancholy, about two lovers wandering their city and wondering about their place in it as people of color, and in his Oscar-winning Moonlight, in which an alienated boy grew into an introverted man, clinging hard to the memories of those who reached out for him and made him feel at home.
As it turns out, connection is crucial, as well, to Jenkins’ beautifully bittersweet new movie, If Beale Street Could Talk. Smartly, the filmmaker hasn’t tried to replicate the singular power of Moonlight, his almost universally beloved breakthrough. Instead, he’s fashioned a new romance, equally sensitive and freighted with its own cultural significance, from the work of a literary giant: James Baldwin, the great writer and social critic, who produced a riveting body of essays and fiction on black American life. Unless one counts the recent, non-fiction I Am Not Your Negro, it’s the first American film made from Baldwin’s work. One would be hard-pressed to think of someone more qualified, in sensibilities and interests, than Jenkins to bring his writing to the screen.
Based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk lushly retells the story of two young lovebirds in Harlem whose life together is jeopardized by a false accusation. Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne), beautifully and excruciatingly naïve at 19, has just discovered that she’s going to have a baby. It’s an unplanned pregnancy but not an unwanted one, necessarily: She would happily start a family with her boyfriend, 22-year-old sculptor Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), regardless of what his holy-roller mother and condescending sisters think. But there’s a bigger complication than parental disapproval: Fonny, the father of her child, is incarcerated. He gets the happy news through several inches of glass.
Fonny, we eventually learn, has been arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. A woman was raped, and the police coerced the victim to pick him out of a lineup. Jenkins treats this injustice as a before-after schism: While Moonlight diced its story into distinct chapters, progressing across three eras of a life, Beale Street plays a different game with chronology, jumping backwards and forward in time. One minute we’re seeing the blissful consummation of Fonny and Tish’s relationship, the first time they made love. The next we’re following the progress of his case, including an international detour embarked upon by Tish’s mother (Regina King) in a last ditch effort to clear Fonny’s name. Much of the film’s tragic power derives from this structural gambit: We see the two lovers making plans that we know won’t come to fruition, dreaming of a modest life together that’s about to be chewed up by the grinding gears of a justice department stacked against them. And Jenkins gets some devastating rhymes from the jumbled timeline, such as a conversation with a fresh-out-of-prison friend (Atlanta’s magnificent Brian Tyree Henry, having one hell of a year) that foreshadows what awaits Fonny behind bars.
One could call Beale Street a communion, in multiple senses of the word. Jenkins isn’t just talking to his source material; he’s expressing a reverence that borders, at times, on the religious. So much of the enduring appeal of Baldwin’s writing is in his elegant, dissecting prose. So naturally, Jenkins finds ways to repurpose it—opening the film with a direct quote (the explanation of the title, which Baldwin clarified as the proverbial place where all black Americans are born) and handing Tish pages of voice-over reflection pulled straight from the novel. Beale Street boasts a stellar ensemble cast, but the actors struggle, occasionally, to naturally deliver Baldwin’s flavorful dialogue. The film’s comic centerpiece, for example, in which Tish’s family breaks the news of her pregnancy to Fonny’s, has a certain Off-Broadway quality, the author’s glorious shit-talk not singing as loudly when spoken aloud. If Beale Street Could Talk sometimes betrays the struggle of adaptation, the ghosts of what’s lost in translation.
The film fares best when Jenkins just trusts the expressive force of his filmmaking, when he uses his own tools to evoke, if not match, the magic of Baldwin’s writing. Working again with cinematographer James Laxton, the director finds visual correlatives: His emphatic close-ups wordlessly communicate the emotions—like the profound peace Fonny and Tish find in each other’s company, walking a rainy New York under a bright red umbrella or radiantly celebrating their first apartment—while the transitional, still-photo montages of black life pay tribute to Baldwin’s social conscience, his grasp of the inequities the civil rights era couldn’t dissolve. In one of his most haunting images, Jenkins envisions the gate leading to the subway platform as a cage, the train drowning out Fonny’s screams—Tish’s nightmare vision of what the future holds for him, and for too many others. It speaks loud as any words, even Baldwin’s.
If nothing else, Beale Street is one of the most impeccably crafted movies of the year, from the luster of its color palette (brilliant greens and yellows and blues, creating symmetry between clothes and environment) to the achingly gorgeous swell of Nicholas Britell’s music. Jenkins, an adoring cinephile himself, dabbles in his influences—a little of the Technicolor glow of Douglas Sirk, a lot of the smoky glamour of the great Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai—to bring the past to life. His 1970s Harlem is a place built from memory and melodrama, falling halfway between a meticulous recreation and a backlot world of Hollywood invention.
There is, of course, a deeper, sadder dimension to this heartbreaking drama: Just as the film’s nonlinear layout casts a storm cloud over every scene of puppy-love bliss, rendered melancholy through foreknowledge of what awaits the characters, the present colors Jenkins’ vision of the past. Which is to say, the bitter truths Baldwin saw in 1974 are still bitter truths in 2018, and for all the throwback, brownstone beauty of the art direction, we’re seeing an America—a Beale Street—that hasn’t changed nearly as much as it should have. But maybe there’s some hard-won hope in the way Jenkins tells this tragedy out of order, freeing it of the straight-line progression from “happy” to “sad.” In its splintering of time, If Beale Street Could Talk offsets the crushing realities of growing up in a racist culture with the tonics of love, sex, community, connection. It’s a conversation between then and now, between optimism and despair, and between two black artists of different generations, one living and one dead, both fixated on what it means to live, and really belong, in America.