If Beale Street Could Talk first look: Barry Jenkins consecrates James Baldwin’s race-crossed lovers

Barry Jenkins’s rhapsodic adaptation of James Baldwin’s Harlem passion story, with KiKi Layne and Stephan James as the lovers sundered by a trumped-up police charge, finds reasons to swoon in the darkness.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2018.

Sophie Monks Kaufman

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Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk

Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk

KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk

KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk

The parallel plot structure is not a new device, but it is rarely used to such meaningful and moving effect as in If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins’s flushed adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 Harlem-set novel is narrated by Tish (KiKi Layne). Her voice connects Plot A, in which she and Fonny fall in love and plan a future, with Plot B, in which Fonny (Stephan James) is in jail, having been falsely accused of rape. The interplay between the classical swooning romanticism of Plot A and the racist social reality of Plot B reminds the viewer repeatedly of the humble dreams snatched away. The melodrama amplifies the politics and the politics amplifies the melodrama and this double charge does not let up.

Although the story is one of injustice, beautifully composed aesthetics infuse the picture with harmony. Tish and Fonny often match outfits. In the opening scene they are both in yellow and blue as they kiss for the first time, aged 19 and 22, in a sudden sexual awakening between childhood friends. Jenkins’ use of colour has earned comparisons to Douglas Sirk, yet it is the shivery and elusive romanticism of Wong Kar-wai that these young lovers call to mind. Moonlight is tonally evoked as the same cinematographer, James Laxton, and same composer, Nicholas Britell, bring a gliding camera and a score of strings that groan with yearning.

James Baldwin fans will be wondering how the source text is handled. This is a reverent adaptation that clips lines of dialogue from the novel as carefully as if they were roses, replete with thorns.

The sharpest lines take place when Tish’s family break the news to Fonny’s family that their children are having a baby. A fragile peace between these factions shatters and insults fly with the zinging pace and verbal bite of a screwball, with Regina King and Teyonah Parris (Tish’s mother and sister) as MVPs. As satisfyingly catty as things get (“She has a weak heart!” warns one character. “She has a weak head!” snaps back another), the scene is anchored by an appreciable sense of foreboding over how life will pan out for this unborn baby.

Regina King as Sharon Rivers

Regina King as Sharon Rivers

What does oppression caused by a white supremacist society do to your capacity to look after loving bonds? Fonny’s holier-than-thou mother (Aunjanue Ellis), with two daughters in her image, clings to God because the life on earth is crushing. Fonny’s childhood friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), bathed in golden light, is devastated by the unspeakable things that happened to him in jail. (“I’m lucky I only got two years because when you’re on there they can do with you whatever they want.”)

But Fonny and Tish… they focus on each other like their love is the centre of the world, and the way that Jenkins shoots them, it is. During their romantic scenes the tempo of dialogue slows, the camera lingers on his adoring eyes and her shy reciprocation, as both performers channel a rapt attentiveness that near causes the screen to combust. The sanctuary they find within each other calls to mind Todd Haynes’ Carol, as two people steal moments of bliss in the rigged game run by the racist dealer that is America.


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