Adapting a James Baldwin novel is no easy feat. One of the greatest American writers, Baldwin's work often blends narrative elements with direct social commentary in a way that doesn't necessarily immediately translate to the big screen – perhaps one of the reasons so few of his works have ever been adapted. Rising to the challenge, then, is perhaps the most accomplished of the emerging generation of black film-makers, Barry Jenkins, whose transcendent, Oscar-winning Moonlight has become a rightful jewel of American independent cinema.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of lovers Tish and Fonny, whose love is pitted against the cruelty of a world implicitly structured against them. When Fonny is thrown in prison over false allegations, Tish and her family undergo a traumatic battle to set him free and reunite the two before she has his baby. Lamentably, Beale Street is as relevant now as it was when Baldwin wrote the book in the 1970s – an exercise in illuminating and validating the lives of people loving and surviving in an oppressive world. Jenkins' work here is truly stellar – the film radiates warmth and humanity in every dense, intricate frame. Employing an episodic structure of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the film incorporates a wonderful cast in small roles – most notably Brian Tyree Henry in a haunting, unsettling scene as an ex-con describing the dehumanizing aspects of imprisonment; and newly-minted Oscar-winner Regina King as Tish's tough-as-nails mother.
Jenkins has followed up his masterpiece with a searingly powerful, emotional film, driven by Nicholas Britell's phenomenal score, but one that remains unflinchingly unsentimental about the situation its characters find themselves in. Love persists, but the narrative of the constant struggle for freedom for black people in America has no interest in tidy, easy resolutions. This means that the film lacks the astonishing catharsis of Moonlight, but retains its frankness and formal beauty. Beale Street is an almost unbearably human examination of the price of love and the tragedy of stolen freedom.
Cast: Regina King, KiKi Layne, Stephan James
Director: Barry Jenkins
Running time: 119 mins
Censor: M. Violence, offensive language & sex scenes
Verdict: A gorgeous, sinewy adaptation of an American classic.