How is it possible that Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) is the only director ever to have brought a work of fiction by the great James Baldwin to the big screen? The oversight feels particularly confounding given the author and social critic's ties to Hollywood elites. Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston and Harry Belafonte were friends of Baldwin's. As a young man, he roomed with Marlon Brando.
Better late than never, though, and a better, more generously empathetic adaptation of Baldwin's 1974 novel is nearly impossible to imagine. If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of two Harlem friends who grow up to become lovers. Stephan James plays Fonny. KiKi Layne is Tish, just 19 and genuinely stunned by the realization that the little boy who shared a bathtub with her has become the man with whom she wants to share her future.
Think Romeo and Juliet with racists. Baldwin's lovers aren't star-crossed but rather double-crossed by a country that keeps its promises selectively. In work after work, the writer lamented that America simply can't figure out what to do with its black population. In the case of Fonny and Tish, it does what it's always done — everything possible to make life more difficult than it has to be.
Some obstacles to happiness prove less surmountable and more insidious than others. Jenkins orchestrates an unforgettable sequence that begins with Tish revealing to her mother (Regina King) and father (Colman Domingo) that she's pregnant. We're conditioned to expect recrimination of some sort, but instead we witness an outpouring of love, support and deep joy. Things don't go sideways until the prospective in-laws are invited over to join in the celebration, and Fonny's mother (Aunjanue Ellis) turns out to be a Bible-thumping buzzkill.
Fonny falls victim to dysfunction of a more virulent variety. Not long after crossing paths with a bigoted police officer, he's jailed for a rape that it would have been geographically impossible for him to commit. The plot thickens when the woman who picked him out of a lineup goes into hiding, forcing Tish's mother to fly to Puerto Rico in search of her.
Jenkins' script dances gracefully between time frames. Fonny is an artist, so we see him presenting Tish's mother with one of his sculptures as a gift during the couple's courtship. In another scene, set years later, he unveils recent work to an old friend, and you can read the wear and tear on Fonny's soul in the transformation of his style. It's a subtle, sensitive touch superbly attuned to Baldwin's sensibility.
The film offers plenty of elements one is unsurprised to find in a story about the black experience in America. Both families worry about money. Some members have been forced to resort to occasional minor criminal activity to put food on the table. There are problems with the police. Neither protagonist has an iota of faith in the justice system that keeps a father-to-be behind bars without a shred of evidence against him.
Those aspects may be familiar, but what this exquisitely lensed, gorgeously scored film has that will absolutely put you on your heels is a resilient, radiant sense of hopeful happiness. Despite everything, this is a movie about two young people in love, and I can't recall another in which the feeling was as magically palpable. Jenkins weaves the heart-wrenching beauty of James Laxton's visuals, Nicholas Britell's music and Baldwin's prose into an irresistible cinematic spell. Do yourself a favor: Fall under it.