Barry Jenkins’ follows up the surprise smash success of his Best Picture-winning Moonlight with an adaptation of novelist James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. An unabashed melodrama of the highest order, the film takes place in 1970s Harlem, as it charts the plight of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne), two childhood friends turned lovers who become caught up in the vile machinery of racist America. Crosscutting between two time periods a few months apart, in one strand Jenkins shows us the pair falling in love and searching for an apartment big enough to live and house a studio for Fonny, a sculptor, to work. In the other, he shows how Fonny has been penalised for a run-in with a police officer and imprisoned for a rape he did not commit, while the couple’s families, led by a now pregnant Tish fight tooth and nail to prove his innocence.
This is Baldwin’s story told in a style rooted in the international art house. The American writer spent much time in France and reportedly suggested 60s French auteur Francois Truffaut as his preferred director of the material. Jenkins is perhaps perfect, a black American who loudly stans Claire Denis all over Twitter. His adaptation is rich and dreamlike, prioritising textures and pops of colour. Atmosphere prevails, and if the characters fight insurmountable odds that prevent them full control over the trajectories of their lives, then Jenkins is sure to showcase the everyday pleasures they do control. There’s ceremony to a bottle of whisky and a palpable pop to the opening of a bottle of beer, a tomato leaves a red smear as it angrily splats onto a wall, and a first experience of sex is gentle and tenderly rendered – indeed, for a film about a sculptor, Jenkins’ moment-to-moment priorities are appropriately physical.
If Beale Street Could Talk’s flashback structure is less showy than the triptych construction of Moonlight. But it is equally effective; as we are drawn into the horrors of Fonny’s detainment and the efforts to have him released, we’re afforded sequences of the two leads falling in love some months earlier. Delivered with period detail, ravishing attention to colour and earnest performances, the love scenes sing and we swoon, but their power accumulates as the events of Fonny’s incarceration become desperate. The plot moves with the slow certainty of tectonic plates. Even as we might hope and wish for different conclusions and pray that someone might pull off one of the planned interventions, it is clear that the terrible might of racist white America makes only one outcome possible.