Writer James Baldwin wasn’t just adept with essays and non-fiction; he was a top-shelf novelist, and If Beale Street Could Talk ranks among his best. Written in the early 1970s, Beale Street rings true today as it did then, proof that change is so incremental most people barely even notice it. Yet, there it is, a series of tiny events collecting into something greater. There’s a tinge of bittersweet hope in Beale Street, may that flame never be extinguished. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 21, “Mary, Mary, what you going to name that pretty little baby?”
The infamous Beale Street belongs to the city of Memphis, Tennessee, but every city has a Beale Street. So claimed writer James Baldwin, born and raised in Harlem, New York, on the very streets where he set his seminal 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, now adapted for the silver screen by filmmaker par excellence, Barry Jenkins—the talent behind Moonlight.
The story revolves around Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), young, in love, and expecting a child. Fonny has also been incarcerated, falsely accused of rape, and as these things go, the trial continually gets postponed due to flimsy eyewitness accounts and an accuser who has fled to Puerto Rico. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), goes to bat for Fonny, but without money or resources to draw on, there’s only so much she can do.
It’s not an unfamiliar story, particularly for the poor and underserved in this country. For both Baldwin and Jenkins, Tish and Fonny’s struggle is the struggle of black America: constantly underfoot for one thing or another. Cribbing Baldwin’s directness, Jenkins inserts a smattering of archival photographs into the narrative, which are further reinforced by Tish’s voiceover—poetic and honest like you’d expect from a young girl with a million thoughts swimming around in her head.
Layne’s performance as Tish—at first timid and meek before hardening herself to the world—burrows deep inside the film. Same for James as Fonny: He knows the game is rigged but tries hard to convince himself it isn’t. In the novel, Fonny comes across like a man who has let his anger get the better of him one time too many. He has the hands of an artist—woodworking is his métier—but it’s those fists that will sink him.
Jenkins softens Fonny slightly in the movie, giving him a deeper shade of existential despair. Fonny is frustrated, frustrated that he will lose no matter what. After the movie’s central confrontation with a white police officer, Fonny throws a sack of tomatoes against a brick wall in a burst of anger. They splatter a pulpy red against the wall, like gunshot wounds leaving deathly carnage behind. Jenkins lets the image linger; no crime has been committed, but here on Beale Street, the consequences are deadly.
Assuredly directed, beautifully acted and lovingly shot, If Beale Street Could Talk is faithful to the novel, though Jenkins shaves off a bit of Baldwin’s anger. His focus is the love between Fonny and Tish, a sumptuous and elegant love that cinematographer James Laxton captures with tenderness and care. The movie works best when it stays close to Tish, but often it drifts. Nicholas Britell’s score is elegiac, reminding us that these images of a free Fonny and a happy Tish are told in flashback. They were happy once; they might be again. Oh, the things Beale Street has seen.
If Beale Street Could Talk is available to stream on Hulu. Header image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.