If you’re unfamiliar with the work of late African-American novelist James Baldwin, the socially conscious writer broke barriers throughout his career with stories about a host of complex and personal issues, including racism, religion and homosexuality. In 2016, the documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was adapted from one of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts, earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination and featured actor Samuel L. Jackson narrating Baldwin’s own ideas about American history and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
The beauty of Baldwin’s writing, once again, resonates in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a drama by filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who won an Oscar for screenwriting and a nomination for directing the critically acclaimed 2016 film “Moonlight.” In the hands of Jenkins, Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name is adapted into an observant and touching story of young, requited love, but also one that shoots straight to the heart of how systemic racism has shattered black and brown lives for generations.
Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, “Beale Street” follows Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), a black couple whose childhood friendship has blossomed over the years into true love. Their romance, however, is put on hold when Fonny is wrongly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison, where his fate hangs on the testimony of one racist cop (Ed Skrien) and a woman (Emily Rios) choosing the easiest route for justice. While locked up, Fonny learns that Tish is going to have his baby — a piece of news that makes Tish and her mother Sharon (Regina King) even more desperate to prove Fonny’s innocence before he fades into the prison system.
At times, “Beale Street” feels like we’re watching a stage production, with Jenkins’ approach to crafting conversations between characters allowing ample time for each line of dialogue to have its moment. But Jenkins always finds his way back to his cinematic roots. His distinctive style and framing are fitting for a film like “Beale Street,” where looking into the faces on screen is just as important as hearing the words they’re speaking.
Through its nonlinear storytelling, “Beale Street” controls its pacing and draws it out effectively. Like “Moonlight,” its slow-burning narrative pairs well with the deep-seated emotion Jenkins is hoping to tap into. In “Beale Street,” he has found the epitome of love as a tool for survival and the sacrifices a family will make to protect their own. Reteaming with “Moonlight” Oscar nominees Nicholas Britell and James Laxton for a stunning original score and pristine cinematography, Jenkins has transported audiences to a place where the only cure for hopelessness is fighting through the pain.