It has taken awhile, but finally, James Baldwin is getting an English-language movie that is worthy of this great writer. It took a leap of faith by director Barry Jenkins, who went to Europe in the summer of 2013 and not only wrote Moonlight, which went on to win the Oscar Best Picture, as well as Adapted Screenplay Oscar, but he also wrote an adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 work If Beale Street Could Talk on a wing and a prayer, as it were.
He had no permission from Baldwin’s estate, and did it with the freedom of knowing he could deliver whatever script he wanted. That he did, and eventually the Baldwin estate gave its approval. The result is a lyrical, moving and quietly affecting love story that, like much of the author’s work, also wrestles with deep social issues intermixed with a touching story of true love between a young couple.
The 19-year-old Tish Rivers (wonderful newcomer Kiki Layne) narrates the story of her life, with Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), a 22-year-old man she has known since they were kids playing in the bathtub, complete innocents who grew into a serious relationship years later.
The film darts between past and present in charting their tale, which involves a tender night of love that results in a pregnancy for Tish, all the while dealing with the wrongful incarceration of Fonny for a rape of a Puerto Rican woman who picked him blindly out of a lineup.
Fonny clearly was innocent, but the system failed him. Tish is determined to get him released, even as she is on the precipice of having their child. She also has to deal with the differing reactions of her supportive family, including mother Sharon (Regina King), father Joe (Colman Domingo) and sassy sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).
On the other side is Fonny’s family, including Bible-quoting angry mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and a more understanding, if overruled, father (Michael Beach). The Saturday night confrontation between the families is priceless, as Tish reveals her “condition.”
Also notably in the film for one memorable scene is a terrific Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel, who talks the realities of being black in America, among other things, one night over the kitchen table with Fonny, foreshadowing the latter’s future imprisonment against his own story of being jailed for stealing a car when he couldn’t even drive. This is pure Baldwin, adding the hard truths of life in America even as he tells a vivid love story played out in flashbacks and current visits between the walls of a prison.
The performances across the board are simply superb, led by the great King, who is particularly powerful in a scene where she travels to Puerto Rico in an effort to track down Fonny’s accuser (Emily Rios) to get her to tell the truth. Justifiably, King has several nominations and critics’ group wins already for this performance, even if she inexplicably was left off SAG’s list this week.
Layne and James (a real force) are both excellent, as is the entire ensemble, which also includes nice turns from Finn Wittrock and Diego Luna. Jenkins, with the help of some of his Moonlight team (notably film editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, cinematographer James Laxton, and composer Nicholas Britell) has beautifully brought Baldwin’s world to life, shooting on location in Harlem and navigating the tricky structure of the novel to make a Beale Street more than worthy of its designation as the first narrative English-language film ever for Baldwin. It’s about time. Producers are Jeremy Kleiner, Dede Gardner, Megan Ellison, Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy and Jenkins. Annapurna put the film in limited release this weekend before going wider on Christmas Day.
Watch my video review above. Do you plan to see If Beale Street Could Talk? Let us know what you think.