James Baldwin published If Beale Street Could Talk, his fifth novel, in 1974. In the new film adaptation, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the action takes place in the era of the book, but there’s a fierce modernity to the concerns raised by the story. Centered around the romance of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne), the film addresses the myriad of way in which young black and women in U.S. society are told they don’t belong, they are not valued, their rights are lesser, their freedoms are subject to immediate and permanent revocation. Jenkins and his skilled collaborators include the proper period trappings — soulful music, florid fashions, and a New York bereft of tourist-friendly gussying — but they are not making a period piece. Jenkins knows that Baldwin’s thesis of oppression sanctioned by the apparatus of the state is persistently pertinent. He uses his film to reargue it with passion and empathy, underlining with permanent ink.
I don’t really mean for my descriptions to imply that the film can tilt toward the didactic. But it can. Although he wrote several novels, Baldwin is arguably now best known for his politically-minded essays and corresponding willingness to step forward as a public intellectual (when the country still valued such individuals) and engage all manner of contrary fools. And If Beale Street Could Talk sometimes comes across as rueful rumination on the state of society adorned in the mildly convincing costume of fiction. Consistently admirable in intent, the film occasionally relies on contrivances of character to heighten the drama. A scene in which Tish reveals a piece of notable personal news to Fonny’s family is staged, shot, and acted marvelously — calling to mind a stage play of pugnacious emotion — but it also relies on an alignment of people that strains credibility, calling into question how their paths could have ever started to converge. Similarly, a pivotally placed racist police officer (Ed Skrein) is portrayed with such abject villainy that it undercuts the film’s argument about the inborn prejudices that corrupt true justice.
Despite the flaws, the film remains compelling, convincing, powerful. Much of that is due to the work of Jenkins, whose style invites ready comparisons to poetry. The music peppered through If Beale Street Could Talk brought me to realize the proper corollary is jazz, where the space between the notes can be the most important part of the music. The film operates by mood, by feel, by intricate consideration of the moment. There are strong performances throughout — particularly by James, Regina King, and, building a whole person in essentially one long scene, Brian Tyree Henry — but it is the elegance with which Jenkins pulls everything together that imbues the film with pained beauty. The work doesn’t approach the deep and contained accomplishment of Moonlight (few films do, it must be noted), but If Beale Street Could Talk is clearly from the same immensely skilled cinematic author. Even its flaws help to illuminate greater truths.