The last time Barry Jenkins had a movie playing in Toronto, the whole festival seemed to fall collectively under its spell—drawn as deeply to its hypnotic shades of blue as its main character, the agonizingly withdrawn Chiron, was drawn to the crashing waves of Miami. It was love at first sight for many of us (this critic included), and that love moved outward from the city like a refreshing breeze, culminating with a historic, unbelievable moment of victory at the Academy Awards. So when you’ve just made Moonlight, what the hell do you make next? Jenkins, a gifted artist who’s also a voracious cinephile (he fires off declarations of adoration at 280 characters), has brought his answer to TIFF. If Beale Street Could Talk (Grade: B+) finds the filmmaker cashing his capital on a literary adaptation, communing again with another writer—this time the great novelist and social critic James Baldwin—for a rich, tragic study of black American life. If the film lacks Moonlight’s sheer expressive power and primal simplicity, Jenkins is reaching further this time, telling a bigger story than the heartbreak and alienation of one taciturn kid.
Like both Moonlight and the director’s first feature, Medicine For Melancholy, this is an intimate romance that nestles big cultural questions into the folds of its narrative. Adapting Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Jenkins lushly retells the story of two lovebirds in what was then contemporary Harlem. Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne), beautifully and excruciatingly naïve at 19, is head over heels for her slightly older boyfriend, the sculptor Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). The two are expecting a baby—an unplanned though not unhappy development in their lives together, but one that has created some friction between their two families, who collide, in the film’s shit-talking comic highlight, when the couple gathers them all under one roof to break the news.
So much of the power of Baldwin’s writing is in his elegant, dissecting prose, and Jenkins repurposes it, opening the movie with a direct quote (“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street”) and handing Tish pages of voice-over reflection pulled straight from the source material. Some of the lines, similarly creditable to Baldwin’s original work, stick in the actors’ mouths: There are scenes that play faintly like dramatic readings or maybe an off-Broadway adaptation of the novel, reminding that not all dialogue sings when actually spoken aloud. But Jenkins, working again with cinematographer James Laxton, also finds purely visual correlative to Baldwin’s words, speaking volumes without them, through empathetic close-ups of actors—by now, a signature move from this expressive auteur—and black-and-white photos of black life arranged into transitional montages. The movie’s 1970s Harlem is a setting built from memory and melodrama, falling halfway between a meticulous recreation and the glorious backlot New York of, say, West Side Story.
Yet a harsh and relevant reality encroaches on this movie-lover vision of the past; for all its occasionally Sirkian glow and brownstone beauty, the world we’re seeing isn’t too far removed from the real one. While Moonlight progressed across three eras of one young man’s life, If Beale Street Could Talk plays a different game with chronology, jumping backwards and forward in time. The before-after schism line is the film’s central tragedy: Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, locked behind bars when the police coerce the victim to pick him out of a lineup. What’s achingly sad about the film’s structure is how it casts a storm cloud over the scenes of puppy-love bliss: We see the two making plans that we know won’t come to fruition, dreaming of a modest life together that’s about to be chewed up by the grinding gears of a justice department stacked against them. Still, If Beale Street Could Talk strikes a balance of optimism to despair, offsetting the crushing realities of growing up in a racist culture with the tonics of love, sex, community, connection. If one image seems to capture that conflict in microcosm, it’s Tish and Fonny moving together down a darkened, rain-soaked street, a bright red umbrella sheltering them from the weather, and all else the weather might represent.