In Karen Thorson's 1989 documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, writer Ishmael Reed describes Baldwin's 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk as "a post-revolutionary novel, in which all the injustices remain." It is, he says, "a very bitter book."
These observations are accurate, as far as they go. After spending the 1950s as an expat in Europe, Harlem-born writer James Baldwin had come home for the 1960s, compelled by conscience to join and bear witness to the struggle for civil rights in America. By the end of that turbulent decade, however, Jimmy Baldwin was certainly—if not "bitter"—very tired. He was tired of being a public figure, he was tired of the struggle's incremental and imperfect progress, and he was tired of trying to write books—as he put it—"between assassinations." In 1970 he returned to Europe for good, buying a house in a quiet village in the South of France. Though he never gave up his U.S. citizenship, and would make periodic trips back to the country of his birth, he would never again—until his death in 1987—call America home.
If Beale Street Could Talk was the first novel Baldwin wrote after leaving his country behind, and the second-to-last novel he would ever write. Narrated by a young Harlem woman named Tish, whose lover Fonny has been framed for rape by a White cop, Beale Street is a book in which the so-called "revolution" of the '60s might as well never have taken place. Systemic racism is not a cause or an issue for the characters in Beale Street: it is simply a given, a fundamental truth of American life, as inscrutable and unforgiving as the wrath of nature. ("You almost feel like the characters in that book are stalked, like prey, like game," Reed observed.) No one in Beale Street speaks of changing the world: they only speak of surviving it, of enduring it, of hustling enough to eke out an existence within it.
It is this angry resignation that earns the novel a reputation for bitterness, and which drew condemnation and scorn from many critics at the time of its publication. Some dismissed Beale Street as a harangue against White America, treating it as a polemicist's screed unconvincingly disguised in the trappings of melodrama. Baldwin was no longer telling America anything it wanted to hear, and so he was accused of being reductive, out of touch, and—most damning of all—of having nothing "new" to say about race relations. ("Mr. Baldwin has already picked that particular bone clean," Anatole Broyard snarked in The New York Times, "and it is time he found himself another.")
But what those critics missed (or at least undervalued) about If Beale Street Could Talk was that it is the most moving and unabashedly romantic love story Baldwin ever wrote. It is debatable whether the '60s made Baldwin bitterly disillusioned with politics, or hopeless about the likelihood that White people could ever really change. But what is certain is that he never gave up on, or grew bitter about, the beauty of Black love, and its almost paradoxical power to not only take root but blossom in the inhospitable soil of America.
Barry Jenkins' new film adaptation understands perfectly that If Beale Street Could Talk was never really a protest novel: it is a testament to Black love, and Black community, in a society that values neither and threatens both. Lush, lyrical, and deeply romantic, Jenkins' film recognizes and celebrates this most important truth of Baldwin's "post-revolutionary" novel: that, in Black America, simply loving someone is, itself, a revolutionary act.
The "plot" that forms the structural skeleton of If Beale Street Could Talk is simple. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are young people in love, but Fonny is wrongfully arrested for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Rios), a crime for which he has been framed by a racist White beat cop (Ed Skrein) whose attention the young lovers had the misfortune to draw. Shortly after Fonny's imprisonment, Tish discovers she is pregnant with his child, and her family (parents Regina King and Coman Domingo, and sister Tayoneh Parris) rallies around the young lovers.
The plot, however, is not the point of the story. Beale Street is not a mystery story—Fonny's innocence is never in question—and it is neither a legal drama nor an expose of systemic injustice. Jenkins wastes no more time on the motivations of the cop or the (unseen) criminal justice system prosecuting the case than he does on all the unseen landlords who refuse to rent Fonny and Tish an apartment. Jenkins treats all of these injustices as Baldwin did, and as the characters themselves see them: as unfortunate but hardly surprising facts of life in a fundamentally inequitable society. They are ubiquitous environmental threats, which must be navigated and negotiated, but the characters in Beale Street are too busy helping each other survive White America to waste energy hoping it might change. ("We cannot awaken this sleeper, and God knows we have tried," Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis in 1970, around the time he was starting to write Beale Street. "We must do what we can do, and fortify and save each other.")
For this is what Jenkins is interested in: the love of Fonny and Tish, and the love of the community of friends and family that close in around these two beautiful young people in crisis. This, Jenkins seems to be saying, is the more important and worthwhile truth: the love all these people share exists independent of the racism of White America, even as that racism draws them more tightly together in solidarity and opposition. It is a subtle difference from the usual story about racial injustice, but it is a stunning and profound one: Jenkins never forgets the ugliness of the world around these people—the world that has, to a large extent, shaped their characters and their destinies—but he focuses, always, on their strength, and their beauty.
It is the unexpectedly resplendent beauty of Barry Jenkins' vision of Harlem that we notice first in the film. Jenkins has acknowledged the influence on his work of Hong Kong-director Wong Kar Wai, and here (even more than he did in his Oscar-winning Moonlight) he uses color and close-ups with something of that director's aesthetic and emotional precision. Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton paint If Beale Street Could Talk in a lush and luxurious palette of autumnal light, as thick and rich as honey, all warm golds and verdant greens and wine-deep reds. There is a more sophisticated study of the film's palette to be done than I can undertake here, but Beale Street's intense colors are clearly coded to individual characters and specific emotional states, even as they combine to lend the entire portrait tones of warmth, nostalgia, and melancholy. The palette intentionally evokes the fashion and decor of the film's early '70s setting, but it also saturates the story with a bittersweet timelessness. This is not realism: this is memory, both personal and ancestral, with sadness always infusing the beauty, and vice versa.
But Jenkins' most important visual canvas is the faces of his stars, who frequently stare full-on into the camera in ways that sometimes seem accusatory, sometimes seem imploring, but which always compel us to acknowledge and immerse ourselves within the hard-fought beauty of their lives. The film is carried by luminous newcomer Layne, who plays 19-year-old Tish Rivers with heartbreaking vulnerability and, at moments, startling strength. If Beale Street is a dream and a memory—as Jenkins' heightened cinematic style reminds us throughout that it is—Tish is the film's chief dreamer and witness. It is her love for Fonny that not only gives the story its drive but also informs the movie's lens: however harsh and unforgiving these streets are, they are also warm and wondrous, because we are seeing them through the eyes of a young woman in love.
In flashback, over the course of the film, Jenkins shows us Tish and Fonny's evolution as a couple—from childhood friends to tender lovers to expectant parents—with a patient, sensitive authenticity that is utterly enthralling, in part, for being so rare in cinema. The entire film depends on our investment in their relationship, and Jenkins ensures that we do not so much observe their love as luxuriate in it. (In their bedroom scenes, which are romanticized without being unrealistic, and intensely physical without being exploitative, it almost feels as if Jenkins has discovered a new cinematic language of intimacy.)
And Mr. Jenkins has assembled an absurdly good cast to close ranks around and defend this threatened romance. First among them is Regina King, who—as Tish's mother Sharon—gives a performance that tunnels deep and ancient caverns beneath the loving face of her character and the lovely surface of the film. When Tish, early in the story, summons the courage to tell her mother she is pregnant with Fonny's child, we see in King's face that Sharon not only already knows about this pregnancy but has already felt the child, held it, loved it, feared for it, admitted it to the family, and prepared to do whatever needs to be done to make a space for it in the world. (And yet she waits, patiently, lovingly, for words she doesn't need to hear but knows her daughter needs to speak aloud.)
Later in the film, Sharon is sent to appeal to Fonny's accuser (Rios, very fine in a very tricky role). As we watch Sharon dress for this mission in the mirror, we see her silently process strategic decisions about her appearance in ways that touch on complex concerns of race, and class, and how an older woman speaks to a younger woman. It is the kind of scene—and the kind of performance—that tells us how well Ms. King and Mr. Jenkins not only understand this particular woman, but understand and admire generations of women like her.
It is Ms. King who will is getting (and deserves to get) awards acclaim for her role in this film, but nearly the entire ensemble is flawless, and If Beale Street Could Talk simply glows with this kind of insight into and respect for its characters. Mr. Jenkins' screenplay and sensitive direction are remarkably adept at exploring the particular strengths, vulnerabilities, and survival techniques of the different classes, genders, and generations of this community in this moment of crisis. An extraordinary early scene brings the two families together, for a complexly ugly confrontation that exposes issues of class, faith, respectability, and colorism. This scene eventually resolves itself into a vicious battle between women, with the serene Sharon and Tish's fiercely protective sister Ernestine (Parris) squaring off against Fonny's pious mother Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis) and her two "high yaller" daughters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).
The men—Tish's father Joseph (Domingo) and Fonny's father Frank (Michael Beach)—are banished from this conversation, and they are frequently spoken of by the women as drunks and clowns. But Jenkins takes care later to show us these two older men alone with each other, and explores the weary pain and profound fears they can only confess to each other. We feel the weight and wounds of their hard lives, and of the sacrifices they have made. And we hear them, now, conspire towards further actions, and further sacrifices, that they alone are able and willing to make to protect their children.
A parallel scene plays out in flashback between younger men, as Fonny, who we know is soon to face prison for a crime he did not commit, speaks with his friend Daniel (a devastating Brian Tyree Henry), who has just gotten out of prison after being convicted of a crime he did not commit. We see in Daniel's haunted face and broken soul a possible dark future for Fonny, and we know that Fonny's only, thin chance of avoiding that fate lies in the love of Tish, and of the community around them. Suddenly, too, we glimpse future echoes of the fathers, Joseph and Frank: the generations of men are speaking to each other across the film, and we can now see the palimpsests of the younger men's struggle behind the booze-soaked weariness of the older.
It is difficult to articulate precisely what makes If Beale Street Could Talk such a stunning and unique achievement. Mr. Jenkins has produced a film that is saturated with pain and injustice, and he has somehow made it beautiful, romantic, and life-affirming without ever glorifying or romanticizing the pain itself. This was one of Baldwin's indisputable gifts: in the words of Turkish writer Yashar Kamal, Baldwin could "pile darkness upon darkness upon darkness, and then blast you with light." In If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has taken one of Baldwin's darkest stories and shown us how it is actually suffused with light. This is not a film bemoaning Black misery, but celebrating Black community: its gorgeous light radiates from the resilient strength, and the complexly improbable hope, and the necessarily bottomless love of its characters.
("I've loved a few men, and I've loved a few women, and a few people have loved me," Baldwin once said. "I suppose that's all that has saved my life.")
If Beale Street Could Talk is overwhelming with moments of transcendent beauty and grace, but perhaps none moved me more than the moment at the film's end, when the screen fades to black and Barry Jenkins' dedication comes up: "For Jimmy." Beginning with his childhood in Harlem—when he recognized on Bette Davis's famous, larger-than-life face the same "pop-eyes" that he had been taught to think irredeemably ugly on his own—cinema was a passion for Baldwin. Throughout his career Baldwin would write about film with the same eloquence and insight with which he wrote about everything else, and he longed all his life both to write for the big-screen and to see his own works realized there.
In 2016, Raoul Peck's excellent documentary I Am Not Your Negro—drawn from an unfinished book of non-fiction—finally gave James Baldwin his first screenwriting credit. Now—more than 30 years after his death—If Beale Street Could Talk is the first feature film ever adapted from a Baldwin novel. It is almost unfathomable that Baldwin's extraordinary fiction has remained unplundered by Hollywood until now, but perhaps this long wait is a blessing. The books have sat waiting for Black filmmakers with the vision and sensitivity of Mr. Jenkins to do them justice.