By Liam Lacey
The late James Baldwin’s writings about race in America have gained fresh urgency in the Black Lives Matter era, partly through his influence on Ta-Nehisi Coates but also through Raoul Peck's well-received documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. What we don't hear much about is his novels; like his television-friendly contemporaries, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, he is remembered more as a public intellectual, rather than as a writer of fiction.
That may change with Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Baldwin's slim, intricate 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, which is a love story, hardened and purified in a crucible of racial oppression. The story, which might be categorized as Young Adult fiction today, is told from the perspective of a pregnant 19-year-old girl about her family's efforts to find justice for her wrongfully imprisoned boyfriend.
Jenkins won the best picture Oscar for Moonlight (2016), a film based on Tarell Alvin McCraney autobiographical unpublished play, which was a revealing portrayal of the bonds of tenderness among drug-dealers and ex-cons. With Beale Street, though, Jenkins lavishes his visual sugar on a subject that's already conventionally attractive.
The young lovers of the story, set in Harlem of the early-seventies, are 19-year-old perfume counter clerk Tish (newcomer KiKi Lane) and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Alonzo or "Fonny" (Canadian actor Stephan James). They are gorgeous and in love, though their predicament is dire. In an early scene, Tish arrives at a jail to visit Fonny, who has been wrongfully accused by a racist cop of raping a Puerto Rican woman. Tish tells him that she's pregnant and he's unexpectedly delighted.
Tish then has to break the news of her pregnancy to her family, which proves almost comically easy. Her loving and resourceful mother Sharon (Regina King) strategizes things so the father Joseph (Colman Domingo) has no choice but take the news well. Tish's scrappy older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) tells her to "Unbow your head, sister."
Breaking the news to Fonny's family is more challenging, especially his sanctimonious mother (Aunjanue Ellis) who curses the unborn child, for which Fonny's father slaps her to the floor. (We are, presumably, supposed to be cheering for the wife-beater here.) On the way out, Ernestine insults Fonny's stuck-up sisters, saying no one would want to have sex with them anyway. If Baldwin's gender views seem a little dated, the performances feel authentic, leaving vivid impressions in limited screen time.
When the film focuses on two central lovers, though, the tumult tones down to a quiet hum. As attractive as they are, Tish and Fonny remain one-dimensional as angels. Their love story follows them from childhood to romance and the world basks in their love light. Harlem of that era, arguably not its best period, takes on a burnished glow with splatters of bright colours suggesting a sort of La La Harlem. Everyone they meet are co-celebrants of their love story: A beaming Hispanic waiter serves the young couple a meal on credit; a young Jewish landlord (Dave Franco) gives them a break on a loft rental, because he loves people in love.
Languorous scenes are punctuated with sudden swells of orchestral brass and strings, as if cueing the actors to break into song. Jenkins's radiant close-ups of his characters are in the spirit of celebratory portraiture, a kind of fourth-wall-breaking technique where the actors stare directly at the camera, judging or appealing. The world the lovers inhabit suggests they are being shadowed by colour-co-ordinating genie with a flare for vintage fashion. Tish's green dress colour picks up the matching shade of the wallpaper; Fonny's teal shirt picks up the colour of the vase on the table.
For some realistic ballast, we have the parallel story of the court case, with its theme of the power of family love. The chief villain of the piece is a racist cop (Ed Skrein) with a weedy moustache and wet lips, who oozes evil juice, though we understand he's merely an instrument of the system which manifests oppression in various guises.
Plot is not really a driving force here and Individual sequences seem suspended in aspic. The most mobile of these takes us out of New York when Sharon travels to Puerto Rico to find the rape victim (Emily Rios) which is dramatically pointless, though it suggests there may be even worse places to live in the world than Harlem.
Beale Street's most powerful scene is a long monologue taken from Baldwin's novel, delivered by Fonny's easy-going friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) who, after a few beers, talks about his personal ordeal in prison, and how the white man, who runs these modern torture centres, "has got to be devil."
Consistent with Jenkins's assemblage of moments, he inserts jarringly brutal archival black-and-white photographs of white policemen and guards arresting or holding black men at gunpoint, reminding us of the cruel racial history of the U.S. justice system to the present day. Yet, in the end, Jenkins softens the pain at the end of the Baldwin's novel, shifting to a more sentimental note, and measure of hope, which is more than forgivable. At the same time, he also leaves a chasm of frustration, not only for the injustice his characters endure but for the distracting preciousness of the film's style.
If Beale Street Could Talk. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Starring Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Aunjanue Ellis, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Emily Rios, Ed Skrein and Brian Tyree Henry. Opens wide December 25.