With his third feature, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has cemented his style: lush romance on top, hyper-realistic despair just beneath the surface. The title is symbolic: The film takes place in Manhattan and not on the Memphis Street where the blues were said to have been born. Beale Street, for Baldwin, is a condition of black life in America, and the story it would tell “if it could talk” is the one presented here: a girl; a boy; an unjust accusation; and a huge extended family full of wildly disparate men and women scrambling to save the boy from the fate of so many young black American men.
Jenkins opens If Beale Street Could Talk with a long, overhead traveling shot of two absolutely beautiful young people, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), who narrates, and 22-year-Fonny (Stephan James), on the night when they’ve decided to become lovers. It turns out that this magic-in-the-moonlight moment — the kind that, in Moonlight, Jenkins transformed into a myth of self-discovery — is a flashback, and that Fonny (short for Alonzo) now sits in jail, charged with a rape that he’s so obviously not guilty of that the prosecutor would be a laughingstock if Fonny weren’t black and the white cop who put him in a lineup not bent on settling a score.
Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton’s palette is rich and warm, its colors deepened by a score by Nicholas Britell that ranges from a distant, forlorn trumpet to a string quartet in which the players dig in as if they’re having their own dialogue between hope and despair. The close-ups are immense, the emotions archetypal. And then, while Tish narrates, come stark, black-and-white photographs of men, woman, and children surrounded by filth and handled brutally by white cops — a sudden chiaroscuro in a film so rich in reds and golds and browns. Baldwin’s words come at as like a slap:
“Though the death took many forms, though people died early in many different ways, the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple, too: as simple as a plague: the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies, and they congregated on the garbage heaps of their lives, like flies.”
Jenkins uses that passage in the film, though he omits Tish’s rather pragmatic admission that perhaps she “clung to Fonny because he was the only boy [she] knew who wasn’t fooling around.” But it’s hard to fault Jenkins for swooning over this cast: the broad-shouldered Colman Domingo with his lusciously deep voice as Tish’s dad, who’ll do anything to make his family happy; Regina King, her features exquisitely empathetic, as Tish’s mom, who treks to Puerto Rico on a seemingly hopeless mission to convince her future son-in-law’s damaged, terrified accuser to recant her identification of Fonny; and Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s big, once happy-go-lucky friend, shattered now after a stint in prison that was, all things considered, shorter than might have been but still a racist outrage. It’s Henry’s character who warns Fonny, a gifted sculptor of wood and metal who’d otherwise have no reason to fear white people, “The white man has got to be the devil.”
If Beale Street Could Talk drifts back and forth between Tish and Fonny’s wondrous expectations before the arrest, and the lonely quest to get the charges dropped once Fonny is inside and Tish is carrying a baby. At times, Jenkins does too much of the work for us — he pre-chews the material, which he never did in Moonlight or Medicine for Melancholy. He photographs the white cop who’s instantly enraged by Fonny as if he really is the devil (and if the devil had bad skin). It’s melodrama bordering on florid opera. Jenkins’s Moonlight-jukebox moment comes before Fonny and Tish make love, when there’s close up of a needle dropping on vinyl: a hackneyed image, however transcendent the music. On the other hand, a montage of customers after Tish gets a job at a perfume counter is overpoweringly eerie. Her monologue climaxes with the arrival of a “typical white customer,” who will spray perfume on Tish’s hand “and carry his flesh to your nostrils and he will hold it there, hold it for a lifetime.” Jenkins makes visceral the feeling that, more than a century after the freeing of slaves, black men and women feel owned. Tish’s pregnancy is a near-monstrous reminder of a world in which she’ll be bringing a child into the world and raising it without a father. The kicks are violent, incapacitating.
In Jenkins’s work, loss is a given. He lyricizes it and sometimes seems to wallow in it. Baldwin’s novel — and Tish’s narrative voice — gives him a means of expressing anger. The absurd reaction to the Black Lives Matter in much of the country (Blue Lives Matter! All Lives Matter!) purposely — criminally — ignores the slogan’s reason for being: that historically, Black Lives Didn’t Matter for Shit. Fonny, an artist who might never realize his potential, let alone be a functioning husband and father, is one example in the story Beale Street tells. The others are encompassed by Billy Preston’s mournful, ironic rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” which closes the film and suggests that there is actually no medicine for this kind of melancholy.