Oscar-winning Moonlight director returns with swooning period melodrama If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk is adapted from American writer and activist James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. (Supplied: Entertainment One Films)
Barry Jenkins is fast becoming one of America’s most stylish directors, committed to the liquid beauty of the cinematic image and the dream-like pact between movie screen and audience.
In his adaptation of James Baldwin’s swift, spiky novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton adopt the lustrous colours of 1970s photographic film and the direct style of the era’s street photography to create a New York that is part memory, part fantasy, while putting two exceptionally good looking African-American actors into the predominantly white tradition of lush, swooning melodrama.
Teyonah Parris (left) and Regina King (right) play Ernestine and Sharon, sister and mother to KiKi Layne’s Tish (centre). (Supplied: Entertainment One Films)
Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) are in love and plan to get married when Fonny is set up by a vindictive white cop (Ed Skrein) and falsely accused of rape. The film switches back and forth in time between the golden days before, when the pair were lit with a yellow kind of joy, and the present, where Tish, now pregnant and in a permanent state of shock, fights to clear Fonny’s name and get him out of jail.
Regina King won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers, mother of Tish. (Supplied: Entertainment One Films)
Tish and Fonny’s love story unfolds with longing looks and a gentle physical connection. They look at each other with an intensity that is pure and otherworldly. Their richly coloured clothes are immaculately pressed, their New York has clean, empty sidewalks and warmly lit terraces.
While Baldwin’s novel is as full of rage and pain as it is love, Jenkins foregrounds love, elevating Tish and Fonny’s story to mythic heights and subtly recalibrating our way of seeing the black body on screen.
KiKi Layne (left) plays Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Stephan James (right) Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, childhood friends and lovers. (Supplied: Entertainment One Films)
One of the ways this happens is through a series of direct, frontal close ups that are almost still but not quite, where the actor looks out of the screen in a way that is human and relatable. The shots interrupt the narrative and the flow of images, creating a held moment where we gaze into the face of an actor at their most open — a gaze that dissolves the presence of the camera as intermediary.
Jenkins used similar shots in both his previous features, Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and Moonlight (2016), and they’ve become a kind of signature move, a persistent narrative break where the audience can commune with the figure on screen.
If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins’s (centre) third directorial feature. (Supplied: Entertainment One Films)
Here they are particularly affecting, partly because their stilled pace aligns with the film’s use of photography as a key reference point. A shot of Fonny looking into the camera, wearing a yellow shirt and blue jacket, is reminiscent of the portraits Stephen Shore made as he travelled across America in the mid 1970s, in its use of complementary colour, outdoor light and urban background. Jenkins also drew on Carrie Mae Weems’s The Kitchen Table Series, a set of tableaux of people around a bare kitchen table, for the scenes in the Rivers’s family home.
Cinematographer James Laxton says the film’s colour palette was influenced by 1970s Harlem photographers Camilo José Vergara and Jack Garofalo. (Supplied: Annapurna Pictures)
And the grittiness of the time, absent from the film’s look, is included via montages of black and white photographs of post-Civil Rights era blight, taken by photojournalists like Gordon Parks, whose devastating photo essay of an African-American family living in poverty in Harlem appeared in Life Magazine in 1968. This is the real world of Tish and Fonny’s families: grinding low paid work, unemployment, police harassment, unlivable conditions.
As the couple wander around Greenwich Village and scout lower Manhattan for warehouses to set up home, they are an affront to the whiteness of 1970s bohemian New York. They could be any hip young couple, hungry for art and life, except they’re black, which means no one wants to rent them a derelict warehouse; the threat that something really bad could happen hovers in the background of these scenes.
Brian Tyree Henry (right) plays Daniel Carty, an old friend of Fonny’s who is deeply affected by his time in prison. (Supplied: Entertainment One Films)
Something really bad has already happened to Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), a childhood friend who Fonny runs into on the street one day and brings home for dinner. Foreshadowing Fonny’s fate, Daniel has spent two years imprisoned on false charges, an experience that has all but broken him.
In a chilling moment, Daniel remarks that once they have you, “they can do with you whatever they want”.
Watching the two men as they talk and drink, smoke curling up into the apartment against the crisp tunnel of light that illuminates them as in a painting, Tish observes, “neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind”.
If Beale Street Could Talk is actor KiKi Layne’s debut feature film. (Supplied: Entertainment One Films)
In If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins attempts to undo indifference by putting two black actors in a space historically occupied by white actors.
It’s a less cohesive film than Moonlight, but it has moments of pure breathtaking beauty that confirm Jenkins as a truly innovative director.
And it feels like a gift to Baldwin, who wrote several screenplays that were never produced and who always wanted to see himself in the movies (his The Devil Finds Work is one of my favourite books of film writing), and a tribute that is loyal to his fierce tenderness and pride.
If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas from February 14.