With his new film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Barry Jenkins achieves something rare: he pulls the background into the foreground, combines a drama with an essay-film, an analytical documentary. What’s more, he does so without at all weakening or diminishing the drama; rather, the movie’s investigative elements intensify its emotional power, by reflecting them through its characters’ voices and consciousness.
It’s a historical drama, one that’s set around the time of the novel’s composition, but it’s equally a story about today, a movie that relies on its historical context to bring to the fore not the incidental differences but the disturbing similarities connecting those supposedly bygone days to the moment at hand. The movie is current, infuriatingly current, in its clear and direct exposure of the system of white supremacy that’s enshrined and perpetuated in the workings of law—from the laws themselves to their street-level abuse by police officers, their backroom abuse by police officials, the chicanery of prosecutors, the pressures and prejudices of judges, the crushing brutality of incarceration, and the over-all pressure of money and burden of poverty that renders the entire objective, arm’s-length, formally coherent system of oppression circular and self-perpetuating. And it dramatizes that system in closeup, with a depiction of its practical, devastating effects on two families and others in their circle.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is the romance of two lifelong friends who grew up in Harlem, Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), who’s nineteen years old and works at the perfume counter of a high-end department store (she says that she’s the first black woman to hold such a job there), and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), a twenty-two-year-old black man, a sculptor. Tish lives with her parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), in their Harlem apartment; Fonny (whose given name is Alonzo) has moved out of the apartment of his parents (Aunjanue Ellis and Michael Beach), and lives and sculpts in a basement apartment on Bank Street, in the West Village. Or, rather, he did—until he was arrested and incarcerated for a crime that he didn’t commit.
Like Baldwin’s novel, Jenkins’s film is dramatized from Tish’s point of view and in her voice. The movie is a memory piece, but one in which the memories have little distance; instead, they are immediate, passionate, urgent. The film’s deftly and frankly complex, interwoven time structure (amplified all the more by the intricately pleated editing) thrusts the past and the present into the same plane of thought and evokes, above all, the politics of memory—the sense that memory is constitutive of history, of the history that may not be written but is nonetheless ferociously at work in the lives of people who are themselves largely left out of the official record. That’s another injustice that compounds and enables practical ones—and Jenkins includes several sequences composed of archival photographs of black Americans to provide a real-life alternative history, and to evoke their power to inform and illuminate the present day.
Tish and Fonny’s love story is rapturous and tender, a secular-holy and sweetly sexual exaltation that rises to a higher dimension with the creation of a new life: Tish’s pregnancy, which she has to announce to Fonny through the glass and over the phone of a prison visiting room. That’s where they speak, near the beginning of the film—immediately after the rhapsodic opening, of the two lovers exchanging virtual vows in the riverside glory of the New York cityscape. The young couple’s warmth and intimacy (emphasized in James Laxton’s burnished cinematography, which glows and gleams with touches of light) is a crucial counterpart to the violence at the heart of the action. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is, for all its evocation of history and law, an intensely physical film, physical in its pleasure as well as its pain. (Jenkins discusses the importance of sexuality in the film, and in Baldwin’s work, in a recent New Yorker interview with Erin Overbey.)
What separates the couple is, specifically, Fonny’s arrest for a rape that he didn’t commit. The charge is brought by a Puerto Rican woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), who picked Fonny from a police lineup in which he was the only black man. Fonny was arrested for the crime by a white police officer (Ed Skrein) who, earlier in the time line, attempted to arrest him for assault and battery when Fonny was defending Tish from a young white man who was sexually harassing her. The officer’s animus against Fonny (whom he addresses with the slur “boy”) is racial in nature and also personal, in his stated intention to get back at him for escaping, once, his clutches. The terms of the case are unambiguous: Victoria, traumatized and stigmatized by rape, has been manipulated by this officer as well as by the police department over all, as well as by the prosecution, which also makes willful use of a woman (what’s more, one from another persecuted ethnic group) for its own abusive ends. (The drama suggests the officially calculated opposite of intersectionality—namely, divide and conquer.)
In a bitter irony, Fonny’s alibi is provided both by Tish, whose testimony, his lawyer (Finn Wittrock) says, will count for little, and by his friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), a recently released convict who is himself subjected to appalling pressure by authorities to falsify his testimony. Daniel is in the film only briefly, but his presence is at its very core: visiting Fonny in the Bank Street apartment, he talks of the cruel pressure by police at the time of his arrest, by the prosecution when pressing charges, by the system at large when he was forced into a plea deal for a crime that he, too, didn’t commit. He speaks, with quiet and shattering agony, of the horrors that he endured and witnessed in prison, as if reminding the earnest and responsible Fonny that, in the eyes of official white society, there’s no such thing as an innocent black man; American society is constructed to control black people and to destroy them at will.
There’s a quiet fillip to the scene, when Daniel looks with a blend of admiration and bewildered amusement at one of Fonny’s abstract sculptures—which, ultimately, Fonny himself comes to consider differently in the light of his prosecution and incarceration. Jenkins’s own aesthetic approach to the movie is crafted to the demands of the story and its societal implications. He fills it with images of characters looking into the camera, in a triple overlay of looking at each other, looking at themselves, and looking directly at viewers as if to observe the identity and challenge the conscience of all concerned, uniting the characters and the viewers, the past and the present, the power of fiction and of reporting, of emotion and of analysis.
The air of urgency to “If Beale Street Could Talk” arises also from Jenkins’s own success, with “Moonlight,” a film of a similar emotional intimacy and immediacy, but one in which the societal pressures and political offenses endured by its characters are, though dramatized, hardly discussed. As a result, an insensitive viewer might have been inclined to celebrate “Moonlight” for the wrong reasons—for what might be misconstrued as its restrictively personal, i.e., apolitical, view of the lives of black Americans. With “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Jenkins makes explicit what’s present and clear but more implicit in the earlier film: the inseparability, in the lives of black Americans, of personal experience and political consciousness. Hatred, poverty, and deadly menace shadow virtually every plot point in the film, follow the characters into the furthest recesses of their intimacy and inwardness, impose an exhausting alertness and a dreadful fear as the baseline condition of living while black. The mighty love that the movie depicts is itself a mode of resistance—a necessary one, perhaps, but not a sufficient one. With its earnest passion, “If Beale Street Could Talk” evokes America’s own sordid mockery of the pursuit of happiness.