James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk takes flight under director Barry Jenkins
At its best, fiction can portray reality in a way that non-fiction can’t. It should come as no surprise then, that in our era of Black Lives Matter and taking a knee, the celebrated author and civil rights activist James Baldwin is currently enjoying a comeback: A tireless chronicler of America’s racial divide the dilemmas that minorities face and the effects of discrimination, his work sought to make sense of the senseless when facts failed to do so.
Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, received a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination in 2016, while director Barry Jenkins, fresh off winning best picture for Moonlight at the 89th Academy Awards, has chosen If Beale Street Could Talk for his latest picture – the very first screen adaptation of one of Baldwin’s novels.
As relevant as it was when published in 1974, it’s a quiet, evocative meditation on inequality and adversity in America.
Set in Harlem during the 1970s, the plot is told nonlinearly, weaving impressions rather than telling a traditional story. Deeply connected, the young African-American couple of Tish and Fonny are childhood friends who’ve evolved into tender lovers despite reservations from their parents. But it’s not family that stands in the way of this latter day Romeo and Juliet; it’s the consistent and institutionalized everyday racism that they’re confronted with. Simply finding an apartment turns into an odyssey, and when Fonny is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman and held without trial on the word of a dubious police officer, Tish, who is pregnant with his baby, rallies both families to do everything in their power to get him out of jail.
This is merely what happens though; to reduce If Beale Street Could Talk to its plot would be doing it an injustice. More elegy than movie, Jenkins, who also wrote the script, lovingly recreates James Baldwin’s novel as close as possible with long, intimate takes of the protagonists, anguish and resolve playing out on their faces.
However, that is sometimes a disadvantage. Jenkins’ deep appreciation for his literary hero is palpable, but oftentimes he sticks too close to his source material, quoting the novel verbatim over static tableaus in lengthy voiceovers. Clocking in at two hours, this makes If Beale Street Could Talk plodding at times; a somewhat looser, more detached approach would have made for a far more dynamic adaptation.
That said, the film has abundant merits: Jenkins’ atmospheric approach works thanks to an exemplary ensemble cast, capable of conveying a vast array of conflicting emotions with a mere glance and a handful of words that say so, so much. Regina King stands out as Fonny’s mother, even winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress; but each and every cast member would have been worthy.
If Beale Street Could Talk offers a poet’s perspective on the African-American experience. A society rigged against them makes the characters wistful and bitter, but they stay resolute in the face of impossible odds, enduring with strength, dignity and ultimately, love – in spite of it all. Some may prefer a more direct approach to denouncing injustice, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more thoughtful and touching portrait of fortitude.
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