One of the first rules of screenwriting is, “Show, don’t tell.” However, when you’re adapting author James Baldwin’s marvelous novel IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK for the screen, an exception has to be made. Baldwin’s writing is so sublime that to ignore his way with words would rob the story of too much of what made it so special – its exquisite intimacy, as well as its political potency, all expressed with candor and clarity. Keeping the first-person POV through the strong voice-over narration of the main character Tish (Kiki Layne) not only keeps much of Baldwin’s prose front and cent, but it allows us to understand the innermost feeling of the shy and reserved character who would never utter such things out loud. Additionally, Baldwin’s story is constructed as a memory, with the past being informed by what time and distance brings to reflection. All those reasons make this one of the best adapted screenplays of 2018, and easily one of the year’s most compelling films.
Tish is only 19 as the film begins, but she is already in love with Fonny (Stephan James), her best friend from childhood. He’s a struggling artist who’s working dead-end jobs to make something of himself. The two have remained close since preschool, and now that they’re adults, they both realize that they’re attracted to each other physically too.
Throughout the scenes of their relationship, they are bathed with rich, warm tones to make their love affair looks utterly idyllic, easily too perfect by half. This is intentional since it is Tish’s memory of those early days together and she cherishes these fleeting moments as the highlights of her life. Jenkins’ cinematographer James Laxton creates one glorious shot after another of their honey-tinted courtship, and we know that soon, the world will interfere with the couple and turn their relationship from a dream to a nightmare.
Indeed, not long after, Tish and Fonny face their face substantial obstacle – pregnancy. They want the baby and are devoted to each other, but convincing their parents to support their decision may be another matter altogether. As Tish enters her parents’ home to break the news, she can barely look them in the eye and confess the words. Her folks Susan and Joseph (Regina King and Colman Domingo) are surprised, but their shock quickly turns to love and support. Even Tish’s politically woke sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is thrilled about it, and she brazenly instructs her, “Unbow your head, sister!”
Just as Tish is starting to feel safe and secure in her decision to keep the child and move towards an early marriage date, Fonny’s mother (Aunajanue Ellis) comes by and has a very different reaction to the news. She’s a stern religious woman, and her negative feedback humiliates Tish, and it serves as the first warning to the young woman that plenty of those in the world will actively work against her. This, more than carrying the baby to term, will be the real crucible for Tish. At every turn, she will find that her idealism is challenged by racism, sexism, and even ageism. Society doesn’t cut a lot of breaks for black teenage mothers and Tish is about to find out that the storm clouds have just begun to gather.
Soon, Tish and Fonny are handling a multitude of issues, everything from struggling to make ends meet, to the baby’s propensity to kick inside her, to unfair housing practices in New York City. The couple catches a break when a young Jewish realtor (David Franco) gives them a deal on an apartment because he admires young people in love. But that will be the only break they catch for a while as American society will do its damndest to usurp this happy, loving couple.
One day, while shopping in the marketplace, white privilege and sexism rear their ugly heads. An oafish man starts flirting with Tish, and his come-on escalates into playing ‘grab ass” with her. She protests and starts fighting back, while Fonny wholly explodes with rage and starts beating up the creep. Then, a racist cop (Ed Skrein) shows up and has words with Fonny. An interceding shop owner helps get the young black man off the hook, but the policeman vows to keep on the lookout for Fonny.
Soon, Fonny finds himself being arrested for the rape of a young Hispanic woman (Emily Rios) from a nearby neighborhood. Sure enough, it’s all a set-up, one that the vengeful cop has orchestrated. And with that, the young couple’s love story will never be the same. Now, they cannot be together and whether Fonny can ever get out of jail becomes a waking nightmare. As James Baldwin wrote for Tish, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
These are the basic story points of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, but nothing about this film is basic at all. In fact, the scene orders are wildly fluctuating, rarely in direct order, and the narrative jumps around, as memories do. Jenkins juxtaposes shots of exquisite beauty up against tragic ones. He ensures that we never quite know what’s coming next, and it keeps us on our toes almost as much as the young couple.
Even though the hardships start building up fast and furious, Tish and Fonny remain steadfast and keep hoping for the best. Tish is fortunate that her loving parents rise to the occasion here too. They work with Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach) to help give the couple money to fight in court, and Sharon even makes a trip to Puerto Rico to try and persuade the alleged rape victim to recant her story.
In moments, the film is utterly devastating and depressing, shot in cold hues of green and grey to match the awful turns of events unfolding in the story. Yet many of such moments are followed, often immediately afterward, by some of the most gorgeous and poetic images ever captured on film. It is Jenkins’ way of echoing Baldwin’s belief in humanity. Even in the face of the worst, Tish and Fonny, and by extension both Baldwin and Jenkins, keep looking for the light out. The world is an ugly place, and love may not conquer all, but it helps in the trying as does having a steadfast family.
Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders’ editing keeps us constantly leaning forward in our seats, never sure of what is coming next. Nicholas Britell’s moody jazz score can be buoyant or melancholy, depending on the plot. And even when he’s scoring sad scenes, he cleverly inserts some chord structures that sound surprisingly upbeat. The costumes and production values share in the back and forth too, sometimes coming off as sexy and striking, other times, forlorn and helpless. One scene in which Susan battles in herself to determine whether she will wear the wig expected of black women versus showing the world her natural locks couldn’t be more of a metaphor of the daily struggle for the black community. Where is the line, how much of the game do I have to play, and how much of my identity do I lose in the process?
Jenkins draws superb work out of his entire cast, particularly Layne and King, and, as he did in his Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT, he shows a masterful sense of all the elements of filmmaking at his disposal. He is the real deal, one of the most talented of the exciting new filmmakers establishing themselves in the last few years.
In a year that’s been such a banner one for films dramatizing the American black experience (BLACKKKLANSMAN, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, THE HATE U GIVE, BLINDSPOTTING, GREEN BOOK), it’s exhilarating to see Jenkins showcasing characters that keep striving no matter the adversity. Despite the horrors, his film still wants to believe in people, hoping they can find a way, a better way, to coexist. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is a film that has volumes to tell us. I hope everyone listens.