The late author James Baldwin would applaud this adaptation of his novel, from the director behind the Best Picture Oscar winner of 2016.
This week’s film is “If Beale Street Could Talk”, starring Kiki Layne, Stephan James and Regina King. “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins follows his Oscar Award winning drama with this adaptation of the James Baldwin novel. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is at its core a love story, set in Harlem in the early 1970s. A young black couple, Tish and Fonny, are struggling to find an apartment when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. Tish almost immediately learns she is pregnant, which only amplifies the pressure on both of their families as they try to get Fonny out of prison before the baby is born. When introducing the film at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Jenkins stated that Baldwin’s novel was considered a part of the black community’s DNA because it so perfectly captured not only the highs and lows of love between a black couple and their families, but also the sheer fragility of such joy in how it could be ripped apart by external forces at any time. The film portrays this reality by stepping back and forth between Fonny in jail and the events leading up his arrest which trace their love affair as they somewhat cautiously and gradually embrace their feelings for each other. The film’s deliberate pace, painstakingly slow at times, is broken up by family encounters which provide much needed comic relief. Coleman Domingo, perhaps best known from the TV series Fear the Walking Dead, fuels much of this levity playing Tish’s father, as does the rest of the terrific supporting cast comprising the young lovers’ families. The cinematography depicting the intensely personal scenes as well as the gritty urban backdrop is striking and Jenkins again delivers a script that fires on all cylinders, while allowing the character’s nonverbal glances to communicate more than their words could ever describe.
So, on my ski trail rating system, “If Beale Street Could Talk” earns my highest BLACK DIAMOND ski trail rating. While the film doesn’t deliver the emotional blow of a 2 x 4 across the head like “Moonlight”, Barry Jenkins delivers a near perfect adaptation of the Baldwin novel with outstanding performances by the entire cast, led by KiKi Layne as Tish and Regina King as her mother. While on its surface this slow, drawn out, melodrama constructed around a false rape story appears like nothing new, don’t be fooled. Baldwin once said of his work that “Every poet is an optimist, [but on the way to that optimism] you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.” Jenkins succeeds by giving a glorious and heart wrenching depiction of that despair, all the while maintaining optimism through love and family. We can only hope the writer and poet who friends called Jimmy is flashing his signature smile in recognition of Jenkins’ effort.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is rated R for language, sensuality, brief violence and a bit too much honesty between families.
The Friday Film Review is sponsored by Park City Film.