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.)

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