It makes sense to think of If Beale Street Could Talk as a Romeo and Juliet story in which white repression is the force keeping true lovers apart.
The 22-year-old Fonny, short for Alfonso (Stephan James) is a young man with little money and the desire to be a sculptor. His lover, 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) has just discovered she’s pregnant. It all begins with Fonny in jail, wrongly accused of a violent rape. There’s little or no money for the defense, the victim has fled to Puerto Rico, and the New York politicians want the case prosecuted no matter how fishy it is.
When director and adapter Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) gets the lovers together, everything works. He seeks old-fashioned romantic movie intensity as they make love for the first time during a rainstorm and Fonny tries to make a warm, clean spot for her in the basement where he lives. Looking at each other in the grimy, graffiti-scrawled subways—very evocative photography by James Laxton throughout—Fonny has a sensual gaze as he studies Tish’s slenderness and slightness. They’d known each other since they were children, neighbor kids bathing in the same bathtub: “There had never been any occasion of shame,” Tish recalls, as if the relationship had been hallowed since the beginning.
Which is thick, I know. But when the lovers are silent and just look at each other, it quiets the narration. Tish is underwritten, just as she is in James Baldwin’s 1974 source novel. The teenage girl mask didn’t fit snugly on a sophisticated essayist like Baldwin. The book has a young adult quality, despite the explicit sex scene and the language that would evict it from nine out of 10 high schools. Heroines in YA are always right, and they’re always omniscient, too. Describing events to which she wouldn’t have been privy, Tish says, “They don’t tell me this, but I know it.” That makes any suspicious reader ask, “How?”
You could almost get an entire good movie—it might be something like 1978’s Killer of Sheep—about Tish’s parents. The longshoreman Joe (Colman Domingo, who is great) hasn’t let hard work beat the life out of him. He shows a lopsided smile with some disbelief in it when he hears the news that his unmarried daughter is pregnant. His formidable wife Sharon (Regina King) takes over and orders him to toast his daughter’s unborn child with a bottle of cognac they have stashed away. Joe goes along with it, but his bemusement is visible. The strife comes when Fonny’s parents show up to join the party. Fonny’s mom (Aunjanue Ellis) is a venomous church-lady with two conceited daughters. Calling on her Jesus, she precipitates a bad fight between the families.
It’s tough inside, and it’s tough outside, between jail and the threat of jail. In flashback, Fonny talks of his struggles with his just-out-of-prison friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). Having just got out of two years in the lion’s den, Daniel answers with one powerful monologue about the terrors he faced being in prison.
Through Daniel’s lines we get, indirectly, what Fonny is going through as he languishes behind bars. Fonny doesn’t ever scare Tish with the details, even when he talks to her through the heavy jailhouse glass with the marks of a fight on his face.
Indirect scenes are what Jenkins does best, as when Sharon gears up to go meet Fonny’s accuser in Puerto Rico, studying herself in the hotel mirror, getting her look just right for this delicate mission.
If the emotional force of If Beale Street Could Talk is blunted by the flashbacks, the scenes between the young lovers always work. Scene by scene, Jenkins’ very considerable skills as a romanticist bear you away. James and Layne emote the kind of pure, ethereal love that was there at the beginning of the movies and will be there at the end of them.
If Beale Street Could Talk
R; 119 Mins.