Someone has to find beauty in the prolonged tragedy of Black American life without regurgitating the same pain for the rote spectacle of predominantly white audiences.
As a faithful adaptation of its source material, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk leaves a lot to be desired. But as a continuation of the sterling work the director began with his sophomore effort Moonlight, it’s a beauty to behold.
Shot from a script written around the same time as that Oscar-winning picture, Beale Street is gorgeous, heartbreaking and vital viewing. In James Baldwin’s source Jenkins finds a framework from which to further explore his gift for capturing and aggrandizing blackness on celluloid, with cinematographer James Laxton lighting diverse shades of brown skin with a sumptuous eye. Baldwin’s book tells the story of a young couple in love and the interconnected lives of their respective circles. Tish (KiKi Layne) is pregnant while her beau Fonny (Stephan James) is in jail for a rape he did not commit.
The novel uses the tragic predicament to weave a kaleidoscopic portrait of black life in the ‘70s, documenting specific hardship through a universal lens. But Baldwin’s prose and its scope reveal an altogether pricklier and difficult picture than its filmed counterpart. It is clear Jenkins sought to honor the spirit of Baldwin’s work, but in this adaptation he seems reticent to match the ugliest lows within the text. The film isn’t sanitized, necessarily, though the beautifully production-designed New York used as a backdrop here is more like a painting in a museum than the heaving, jaundiced cityscape Baldwin described. Rather than helm a one-to-one translation of Baldwin’s work, Jenkins instead focuses primarily on the enduring love between the two leads and frames the film’s many interludes and asides through that lens.
The result is a brighter, more hypnotic film swept along with an elysian visual language borrowed heavily from Wong-Kar Wai, one of Jenkins’ chief influences. Jenkins’ first film, Medicine for Melancholy, has the lo-fi ennui of a mumblecore flick, but ever since making strident leaps in confidence with his last picture, his greatest strength is his dedication to grafting aesthetic to something corrective about black life on the big screen. Much the way the time-hopping tone poem of Moonlight couches Chiron’s sexual identity and struggle within loping, woozy imagery, Beale Street feels like a trojan horse, spiriting the sharper edges of Baldwin’s writing into this chic, arthouse look book of dizzying close-ups and swelling music.
In that regard, Laxton’s lush photography is matched every bit by Nicholas Britell’s palatial score, a pitch perfect marriage of audio and visual harmonized for maximum emotional effect. It would be easier, perhaps, to make a grittier, more heavy handed piece from Baldwin’s writing, but it would have wound up the kind of depressing, emotional torture porn that prestige pictures about black history tend to be. With this objectively opulent visual approach, the audience is drawn to the image in such a way that allows for a necessary intimacy. There’s a foreshortening between the viewer’s vantage point and a closeness to the performers.
Both Layne and James deliver rousing performances beyond their relative inexperience, but it’s the supporting cast who shines the brightest. From a surprising turn by Michael Beach as Fonny’s explosive father to another in a long line of reliably great 2018 appearances from Brian Tyree Henry as one of Fonny’s friends fresh out of jail, every guest actor (including Dave Franco, of all people) brings the goods. But as awards season is proving, it’s Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon who runs away with the picture.
King has always been a terrific actress, but her film performances never quite matched her television output, specifically her work on “The Leftovers.” By contrast, in Sharon Rivers she finds an opportunity to display the wide range of humanism she’s been capturing for years in a variety of genres. At times funny, harrowing and nourishing, she serves as an anchor through the film’s tumultuous undercurrent, a singular point of certainty as foundational as the love between Fonny and Tish.
For all the skill and craft behind Jenkins’ lavish visuals, he also proves adept at balancing this high art approach with intermittent use of archival footage, providing a counterweight of realism amongst the proceedings. The black and white photographs and the way they’re cut into the film with Tish’s voiceover imply an offscreen war being waged that’s more powerful in its implications; a lesser filmmaker may have made a more brusque focus. It’s here that Jenkins can have his cake and eat it, too, luxuriating in this high art approach to the visuals without erasing the systemic ugliness that inspired it.
Should he continue on this path, Jenkins will remain one of the most important directors working today. Someone has to find beauty in the prolonged tragedy of Black American life without regurgitating the same pain for the rote spectacle of predominantly white audiences. Thus far, Jenkins seems particularly suited to the task.