Adapting James Baldwin is no easy feat. The author’s lyrically ethereal voice is a treasure to read, pulling the readers into his deceptively complex stories that surge with anger and passion with his magical way with words. As great as he was at telling a powerful, emotional story, a great deal of the beauty of his work comes with the way he weaves his stories and the ephemeral style he utilizes. Even for a director like Barry Jenkins, whose lyrical, ethereal, and ephemeral Moonlight won Best Picture just two years ago, Baldwin seems like too difficult a task.
At least, that’s what I used to think. Going into If Beale Street Could Talk, I was skeptical, uncertain that Baldwin could be successfully translated to the big screen in a way that captured both his raw, emotional storytelling and his almost mystical prose. Jenkins, however, more than delivered, bringing to life one of the author’s most complex, beautiful stories in a way that pulsates with life and vivacity. For anyone who doubted, or who thought that Moonlight was, somehow, a fluke, Jenkins more than delivers the goods. In fact, he has surpassed the insurmountable bar he set for himself and created yet another stunning work of art.
The story centers around the young Tish (KiKi Layne, in a brilliant feature film debut) who finds out she’s pregnant by her artist boyfriend, and longtime family friend, Fonny (Stephan James). Complicating matters is the fact that Fonny is currently in jail on a false charge of rape, awaiting punishment as his friends and family do everything in their power to try and clear his name.
Like the novel, If Beale Street Could Talk unfolds achronologically, allowing us to see the juxtaposition of Tish and Fonny’s lives together and the struggle to set him free. While often a gimmicky technique, here it’s used to amplify all the emotions latent in the story. The love, the heartbreak, the rage, and the tragedy are all turned up to the highest levels, assaulting the audience with sheer humanity. Resting on the back of the film’s young stars, If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story that feels all too prescient in today’s world.
As with Moonlight, Jenkins pulls double duty as both director and writer, giving him ultimate control over the film and channeling the spirit of Baldwin in a way no one has done before. With his third film (following Moonlight and 2008’s tragically underseen Medicine for All) Jenkins has beyond proven his prowess as a director; he has solidified himself as one of America’s most poignant and brilliant auteurs. His adaptation feels effortless, as if he had little trouble at all bringing to life one of the more complex stories from one of the most complex authors. Each shot, each line, every flash of flare feels like a slice of perfection achieved on the first try.
If Beale Street Could Talk’s power and beauty cannot be overstated. Jenkins has taken a powerful, important, timeless novel and turned it into an equally powerful, important, and timeless film. Rage and heartache surge from its every from, as it did with every one of Baldwin’s words. It thrashes and lashes under the weight of the love and injustice that counter each other at every turn of the story. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece, and one of the most important films not just of the year, or the decade, but of the century so far.
If Beale Street Could Talk is now playing in theaters everywhere.