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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a heart-stopping, world-shifting romance

The first movie adaptation of James Baldwin’s fiction establishes Barry Jenkins as one of America’s finest architects of on-screen intimacy

There is a moment in Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s deceptively simple 1978 portrait of working-class black life, when the character Stan slow dances with his wife.

Stan is shirtless and stressed, and as they move in unison to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” his wife pulls him into the refuge of her arms. It is sensual and sensitive and sweet all at once.

It is, to borrow from modern internet parlance, a MOOD.

If there is anyone who has carried and built upon the legacy established in that one scene, it is writer/director Barry Jenkins. In his adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has fully established himself as one of American cinema’s finest architects of intimacy.

This is the first film adaptation of Baldwin’s fiction. (Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, released in 2017, is a documentary that uses the words of Baldwin’s unfinished work Remember This House.) Beale Street tells a simple story of thwarted young love. Tish (KiKi Layne), 19, and Fonny (Stephan James), 22, have grown up together in 1970s Harlem. Now, their filial love takes a turn toward romance, the kind that washes over them with waves big enough to smooth the edges of modest-at-best apartments and the stress of financial insecurity. Tish and Fonny plan to get married, move into a downtown loft where Fonny can work on his wood sculpting, and build a life together. But their plans are interrupted by a vengeful police officer.

When a Puerto Rican woman is raped, the officer instructs her to identify Fonny as her assailant. Fonny is jailed for a crime he did not commit. Tish, her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), her mother, Sharon (Regina King), and her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), pull together to clear Fonny’s name. Meanwhile, Tish is pregnant. The outlook is grim.

Although racial injustice is the omnipresent truth of Beale Street, it is not the whole of it. Through flashbacks, Jenkins transports his audience to the hopefulness of just-discovered love and the sanctuary it provides from the soul-crushing hardness of a city like New York.

KiKi Layne (left) as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny in If Beale Street Could Talk.

Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

Beale Street is replete with scenes of Tish and Fonny walking through the rain under a tiny red umbrella after a perfect first date, shrieking in celebration when they finally find a landlord who will rent them a loft, finding home in each other’s eyes as they ride the subway together.

Even as he illustrates the stakes of Fonny’s imprisonment, Jenkins allows his audience to luxuriate in a bitter sort of beauty. The emotional crux of the film hinges on a conversation Fonny has with his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), who explains how three months in prison broke something in him. Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” plays in the background, and a helplessness makes itself known in Daniel’s eyes. The guards can do whatever they want, Daniel tells Fonny. He doesn’t offer specifics. It is enough, and it is terrifying.

As with Moonlight, much of the story of Beale Street relies not on dialogue but on body language, especially on the eyes of its actors. Layne offers a stunning performance, full of innocence but absent naiveté. Jenkins tells stories as though they are symphonies with movements, a point that is punctuated by the spare strings and occasional horns of Beale Street’s score (by composer Nicholas Britell, who also scored Moonlight). Music supervisor Gabe Hilfer also deserves credit for curating selections from John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Billy Preston.

On screen, it’s clear that Jenkins believes not just in love but also in romance: real, true, heart-stopping, devoted, world-shifting romance, the kind that isn’t just difficult to find but cuts through cynicism and shame.

Coincidentally, this romantic movie is being released in the same week that the general public is learning about a silent film clip from 1898 called Something Good-Negro Kiss, thought to be the earliest cinematic depiction of black people kissing:

On Wednesday, the University of Chicago announced that Something Good-Negro Kiss would be added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. It is a rare artifact of black humanity, one that counters the hateful propaganda of minstrelsy and the racist sex panic that declawed films like 1943’s Stormy Weather.

With Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight and now Beale Street, Jenkins has added something invaluable to the movie canon: a Sunday kind of love, one that will last, not just past Saturday night but far, far into the future.

Liner Notes

If Beale Street Could Talk opens in limited theaters December 14 and nationwide on Christmas Day.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.