Prepare to be frustrated and heartbroken. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful, melancholy, infuriating meditation on race in America. Jenkins both adapts and directs and he preserves Baldwin’s poetic fury and his own well of empathy, all while evoking the oppressive systems that devastate the lives of young lovers Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne). It’s a maddening, frustrating film that makes you want to throw something through a wall for all the ways you recognize the world hasn’t changed. Set in the 1960s, Beale Street might as well be today as Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and victimized by a system that imprisons black men at alarming rates. But for all that seething injustice, Beale Street is not an angry film. The overwhelming impression it leaves is of humanity—imperfect, unsatisfied humanity persevering in the face of incalculable cruelty.
Jenkins has already established himself as a director of actors, and here he draws out a pair of astonishing performances from James and Layne, who anchor the film. James captures Fonny’s increasing disappointments and mounting anger but never stops communicating the love he has for Tish. And for her part, Layne gives Tish the kind of dogged determination only the young and in love can manage, and when Tish’s last hopes are dashed, she slumps her shoulders, transmitting a defeat that is heartbreaking. These two give such phenomenal performances, yet they are not the only actors working at that level. Regina King stars as Tish’s mother, Sharon, and she brings a precise mix of strength, desperation, and grief to the film. Everyone on screen is incredible, and actors including Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Bryan Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein, and Finn Wittrock pop up in small roles and do great, if condensed, work.
Adapting novels can be messy, but Jenkins makes smart use of his time and narrative space, and the result is a story that does not stray far from Fonny and Tish and their (tragic) romance, yet still manages to give you a real sense of time and place. We only see Fonny’s family for one scene, but that is enough to give an impression of their dynamic and understand how that impacts Fonny. Hayward (Wittrock), Fonny’s lawyer, is only briefly on screen, but those moments tell us this is the case that will set the course of his future, either sealing him within the system, or pushing him to work against it. For a story that spans families and countries and cultures, Beale Street is compact and concise, even though it leaves room for long, sustained shots of characters’ faces, like living portraits memorializing their state of being as the story progresses.
Often a distinctive, authorial director like Jenkins will struggle with adapting text from a similarly distinct voice, but Beale Street is a perfect marriage between author and adapter. Jenkins raises Baldwin’s novel almost to the realm of allegory, his visual ruminations harmonizing with the story in a way that opens up Beale Street and gives it a mythic feel. This is drama and tragedy writ large, the events of this specific family representing a larger, ongoing struggle, as emphasized by black and white photos from the era injected into the film. If Beale Street Could Talk is impressionistic, a collage of lives played out under oppression and prejudice. It’s a haunting piece of cinema, fully evocative and intimately illuminating. Jenkins brings us into this family and makes us yearn with them for justice, fairness, and freedom, only to puncture the bubble and watch it slowly dissolve, snuffed out by a hopelessly unjust system.