James Baldwin novel receives gauzy treatment in ‘Beale Street’

Director Barry Jenkins goes for atmosphere over story. 

Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures/AP
Stephan James (L.) and Kiki Layne star in 'If Beale Street Could Talk.'

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is writer-
director Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning movie “Moonlight,” and it shares with that film a woozy poeticism that at times is lyrical and moving and at other times is ... well, just woozy. 

“Beale” is based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin and set in Harlem in the early 1970s. Nineteen-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) have been friends since childhood, and that fondness has blossomed into a romance that, from what we see and judging from Tish’s voice-over narration, is as ardent and dewy as anything this side of “Romeo and Juliet.” Jenkins draws heavily on Baldwin’s prose, but the film’s narrative, unlike the novel’s, is broken up by flashbacks and flash-forwards, making an already vertiginous storyline seem even more so.

What we come to learn is that, after their initial courtship, during which they made plans to marry, Fonny was falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit – the rape of a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios) – for which he was almost certainly framed by a racist white cop (Ed Skrein). While he is incarcerated, he is visited in the jail, separated by a glass divider, by Tish, who tells him she is pregnant. “I hope,” she muses in a voice-over, “that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

Tish may have a tinkly, high-pitched voice and, seemingly, a doll-like fragility, but, like her mother, Sharon (Regina King), she has a core of strength fueled by her passion to free Fonny. Her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), and Tish’s sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), are equally on her side. There is no talk of her being a “bad girl” because of her predicament. 

Contrast this with Fonny’s family. His father (Michael Beach) is easygoing and accepting, but his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is a stern religious zealot who, along with her two daughters, cannot abide a baby she believes will be born in sin. (You get the distinct feeling she is more aggrieved by the pregnancy than by her son’s imprisonment.)

In some ways the family members – especially Sharon, as portrayed by King in a strong, knowing performance – are depicted with a flavor and a richness lacking in the characterizations of Tish and Fonny. Jenkins doesn’t really bring them to life with the kind of street realism with which he renders their parents. Nor does he want to. His intention with Tish and Fonny is to represent them as idealizations of innocence in a vicious world teeming with racism. He sketches in just enough of their milieu – she sells perfume in a department store, he’s a budding sculptor – to let us know the world is stacked against them. 

The people who surround them are, for the most part, either advocates – like Tish’s family, or the friendly Hispanic waiter (Diego Luna) who feeds them free of charge, or the kindly, yarmulke-wearing landlord (Dave Franco) who rents them a loft after they’ve been turned down by everyone else – or enemies, like that racist cop or Fonny’s mother. Tish and Fonny’s plight, for all its poetic-romantic trappings, is presented as an inevitable consequence of a racist society. In the film’s most powerful scene, and most powerful performance, Fonny’s good friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), just out of jail on a trumped-up charge, levels with him about what he has experienced behind bars. “The white man has got to be the devil,” he tells Fonny. “He sure ain’t a man.” 

For all the film’s righteous anger and obeisance to Baldwin, it remains a baffling, amorphous construct. Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, employ a dreamy, glistening palette of deep browns, yellows, and reds; the score by Nicholas Britell is allusive and somber. Jenkins, as I also felt with “Moonlight,” is essentially a director of moods. In some ways, his films are closer to music than drama. He wants to move us on an intuitive level that reaches beyond conventional storytelling. It’s an admirable ambition, but what he offers in its place is often so lush and sentimentalized that it wafts off the screen. And so it is with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a movie with its feet touching the ground and its head high up in the clouds. Grade: B (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to James Baldwin novel receives gauzy treatment in ‘Beale Street’
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today