Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins has the golden touch, especially when it comes to film adaptations of literary works. “Moonlight”, Jenkins’ 2016 film adaptations of gay writer Tarell McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, earned both men an Academy Award.
Jenkins once again excels with “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Annapurna), based on the 1974 novel by the late gay writer James Baldwin. In fact, the film’s opening epigraph, a Baldwin quote about the book, firmly places the movie in literary territory. In truth, it’s hard to imagine another filmmaker (certainly not Ava DuVernay, for example) who could have created such a worthy adaptation.
Set in New York in the early 1970s, young, unmarried couple Tish (Kiki Layne), 19, and Fonny (Stephan James), 22, have known each other since they were even younger, having grown up together. The film opens with Tish having to look at Fonny “through glass” as he is in prison, accused of a rape he did not commit. It’s in this setting that she tells him she’s pregnant.
From there, “…Beale Street…” moves back and forth in time. In flashbacks, we watch as Tish and Fonny fall in love. Tish works behind the perfume counter at a department store. She still lives at home with her mother Sharon (Regina King in a career-defining performance), father Joseph (out actor Colman Domingo) and older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).
Fonny went to a vocational school, but found it unsatisfying. He quit and stole tools from the school so he could make wood sculptures when he wasn’t working as a short order cook. Tish, who occasionally narrates the story, talks about the eye-opening effect of seeing Fonny outside the world in which she moved. As their relationship develops and they become more intimate, they eventually have sex. It’s the kind of tender and passionate first time for which we would all be grateful. Afterwards we can see that they are looking at each other through different eyes.
After telling Fonny that he’s going to be a father, Tish shares the news with her family. Her parents and sister take the news better than she expects. That same night, after drinking a toast to the baby, Tish’s parents invite Fonny’s family over to let them in on the big event. Unfortunately, Fonny’s fire-and-brimstone mother (Aunjanue Ellis), who never liked Tish, and blames her for the “destruction” of her son, creates quite a scene, resulting in her husband Frank (Michael Beach), slapping her silly. It’s an intense scene and features the first of King’s two Oscar moments in the movie.
Meanwhile, Victoria (Emily Rios), the woman who accused Fonny of sexual assault has left New York for her native Puerto Rico, decreasing the chances of getting at the truth in the case. But everyone bands together and does what they can to seek justice. Sharon and Ernestine meet with Hayward (Finn Witrock), the lawyer. The fathers, Joseph and Frank, have their own scheme involving fencing stolen goods to raise money to pay the lawyer. Sharon even journeys to Puerto Rico to meet with Victoria.
While it doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as “Moonlight”, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is still another notable achievement by Jenkins. As much a story about young love, life consequences and racial prejudice and inequality (something that definitely rings true today), as it is a commentary on the disparities in the judicial and prison systems. The fact that it’s Regina King, in a supporting role, who basically owns the movie, says more about her underappreciated talents as an actress than anything else. It’s a safe bet to put your money on King come Oscar time. Rating: B+