“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” 19-year-old Tish shares in the opening scene of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” moments before breaking the news that she’s pregnant to boyfriend Fonny, imprisoned for an unpardonable crime. A work of social realism elevated to poetic heights by the sheer beauty of its voice and the humanism of its spirit — a feat director Barry Jenkins also managed to achieve with his previous film, “Moonlight” — Baldwin’s Harlem-set novel takes readers on two separate journeys, depending largely on their racial background.
Writing in 1974, he knew that many white people would see a black man behind bars and jump to their own conclusions, drawing fast assumptions that Baldwin uses the rest of the book to challenge and untangle: How can Tish hope to raise this child if she’s poor and her baby daddy’s in jail? Black folks, on the other hand, know that just because Fonny’s been arrested doesn’t make him a criminal. If anything, he’s a victim of an unfair system, which raises an entirely different question in their minds: What are the odds that justice will be served and he’ll be allowed to return to his family?
As an African-American filmmaker fresh off his big Oscar win, Jenkins doesn’t seem especially worried about the “what white people think” side of that equation (and why should he be, when the story is his to tell?). Instead, he adapts Baldwin’s novel for more or less the same personal reasons he wrote “Moonlight” — as a chance to explore the black experience in America — and in both films, prison is the thing that derails what could have been a beautiful life. In “Beale Street,” which proves even more playful with traditional chronology than “Moonlight,” the characters’ belief in love never wavers amid the setbacks, which makes an impactful statement about the way African-Americans must cope with a broken system — one reinforced by the use of vintage black-and-white snapshots of black life throughout.
Jenkins, who lifts most of Tish’s narration and a fair amount of the dialogue directly from the novel, uses that heartbreaking “through glass” line early on, but not before inserting an idyllic opening scene between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) that looks like it could belong in “La La Land”: Beneath a canopy of yellow leaves, they walk along the Hudson River, he dressed in a bright yellow button-down and an unwashed blue denim jacket, she wearing a blue dress beneath a canary yellow coat.
Reality melts away as the camera cranes to follow these two lovebirds, establishing a tone that’s more “Little Miss Sunshine” than “Moonlight” for much of Jenkins’ third (and third-best) feature, right down to the too-cute period costumes and distracting wallpaper choices. The movie quotes Baldwin as saying, “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” but this one may as well be located inside a snow globe. In deciding how to translate Baldwin’s prose to the screen, Jenkins has done the equivalent of turn Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” into a Douglas Sirk movie (or put Alice Walker’s’ “The Color Purple” through the Steven Spielberg filter).
That may not be the right approach for everyone, but it will work for some, particularly those for whom Jenkins’ “Beale Street” signifies another prominent stride in the crusade for African-American representation on-screen. If the director’s take on Tish and Fonny’s romance seems a bit too idealistic, that’s merely his way of heightening the tragic situation created by Fonny’s unjust arrest for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, who picked him out of a lineup at the suggestion of a racist cop. No one who knows Fonny would ever believe that he could do such a thing, nor does Jenkins allow so much as the shadow of a doubt to enter into audiences’ minds.
By casting an actor as handsome as James as Fonny, he challenges the notion that only Tish could appreciate his odd looks (in the book, her best friend describes “how ugly he was, with skin just like raw, wet potato rinds and eyes like a Chinaman and all that nappy hair and them thick lips”), inviting audiences to crush on him too. Likewise, he softens Tish’s character, substituting her painfully awkward naïveté with a kind of soft-spoken shyness. When the two first make love, it’s not a sloppy-passionate awakening for her so much as the gentlest deflowering a young woman could hope for — all of which is valid but not quite what Baldwin had in mind. As an author, he actively resisted Jenkins’ relatively superficial black-Barbie-and-Ken aesthetic, instead painting his characters as flawed, funny-looking, and frequently contradictory human beings.
What’s most surprising about Jenkins’ approach is the way it departs from that of his previous two features. In his 2008 debut, the desaturated, “Before Sunrise”-like “Medicine for Melancholy,” two hyper-articulate San Francisco singles spend all night sharing ideas. They never run out of things to say, whereas Tish and Fonny have a more unspoken connection, expressing themselves practically in slow motion when they do choose to talk. In “Moonlight,” black boys look blue (per the title of the Tarell Alvin McCraney play upon which it was based), while this time around, cinematographer James Laxton gives everyone a warm, golden glow, which offers a different perspective on their personalities as well — less melancholy in the face of similar legal challenges.
Of course, there’s nothing that says Jenkins can’t go a completely different way from either Baldwin’s or his own earlier style. If “Moonlight” was specific to his and McCraney’s Florida upbringing, then “Beale Street” is meant to be something more universal, relatable to African-Americans everywhere. Instead of getting caught up in the gaudy costume and production design, we’re meant to look past such superficial details to what the characters are going through, whether it’s the way Tish and her family — outspoken sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) and unwaveringly supportive mother Sharon (Regina King) — defend her pregnancy to her judgmental would-be mother-in-law (Aunjanue Ellis) or a tense encounter with a bigoted cop (Ed Skrein) after Fonny starts a fight at the neighborhood bodega. But that can be tough when, in a scene where a Jewish landlord (Dave Franco) is the first person to seriously consider renting to them, his flashy sweater distracts from the scene’s true point: that the world doesn’t give a couple like Tish and Fonny a fair shake.
Still, in other aspects, the film’s style serves to heighten the experience, particularly in the nonlinear way the narrative unfolds, flowing naturally back and forth between their present struggle — including a fantastic sequence when King, all but channeling “Foxy Brown,” flies to Puerto Rico to confront Fonny’s accuser — and defining moments before his arrest. Jenkins doesn’t have the budget to re-create Harlem as it was circa 1974 (see the James Earl Jones-Diahann Carroll romance “Claudine” for a glimpse of the neighborhood at the time), but that doesn’t seem to be his goal in any case. Rather, if “Beale Street” is to be a universal expression of the African-American legacy, as Baldwin intended, then Jenkins wants to show that love and family are the key to his community’s survival.