Every so often, the characters in Barry Jenkins’ anguished and mournful “If Beale Street Could Talk” look straight at the camera and at you. In some movies, this kind of direct address can seem conspiratorial, suggesting that you and a character are in on a joke. Elsewhere, these gazes seem accusatory, assaultive, beseeching; here, most feel intimate and inviting, but also expansive. When two lovers look at each other in this movie, the tenderness in their eyes softens everything, creating a radiance that folds around them like a blanket, blunting the world. You feel the warmth, the softness, too.
One of the most pivotal looks in the movie is directed at 22-year-old Alonzo (Stephan James, a heartbreaker) as he stands in a pale swirl of cigarette smoke next to a sculpture he is creating. A haunting, somewhat elusive man known as Fonny, he turns wood, stone and metal into art, and is similarly transforming his identity as a black man in America. He dreams, sleeps and makes art and love in a West Village basement apartment with no charm and a bathtub in the middle of it. Now, as he faces his work, the camera circles Fonny as smoke billows around him in the opposite direction.
Illuminated by a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, Fonny looks beautiful, holy. He is sanctified by this vision of himself, by his desires and by the love — of a woman and of Jenkins himself — that helps define him. This is also how his fiancée, Tish (KiKi Layne), sees him and how she shares him with us as she tells their story, which takes place largely in New York City in the early 1970s. This romantically swoony vision of the beloved seems like a reverie from a bohemian fantasy, the kind once pursued by hungry young strivers in Paris and the old Greenwich Village. Except that Fonny and Tish are loving while black, an existential truth that is turned into a nightmare.
This is Jenkins’ third feature-length movie and his follow-up to “Moonlight,” which announced him as a major American filmmaker. He wrote and directed “Beale Street,” closely adapting it from the 1974 James Baldwin novel. The story tracks Fonny and Tish’s life together, starting around the time she realizes she is pregnant. As it hopscotches around, jumping from the present to the past and back, it replays scenes from their shared childhood in Harlem and, after their friendship turns to romance, their budding life together. The story eventually focuses on the present with Fonny in jail and Tish fighting — with help from their families — to get him released.
In most white screen romances, the love between a man and a woman (and its tests) tends to be framed in personal terms, as a matter of individual will, of good or foolish choices of the heart and head. The greater world always presses in on the star-crossed lovers even when the movie pretends otherwise, shaping or just quietly tugging at their story. Here, the world — white, pitiless, punishing — comes down like a hammer on Fonny and Tish. Because no matter the purity and grace of their love when they wander the Village, or eat in a friendly Spanish restaurant that was a Baldwin favorite, they are never simply two people in love but also an affront to the power of the white world.
The instrument of that supremacy in “Beale Street” is a lizardy white beat cop (Ed Skrein), who frames Fonny for rape. How the cop pulls this off is not of much concern. It’s a given that the system is racist, rigged, which Jenkins partly conveys through the dawning consciousness of Fonny’s white lawyer (Finn Wittrock). For the lovers and their families what matters is Fonny’s freedom, which they struggle to obtain with the lawyer they cannot afford and by reaching out to the rape victim, a pawn in the cop’s scheme. Tish’s mother, Sharon, (Regina King, reliably forceful) even travels to Puerto Rico to confront the woman (Emily Rios), which uneasily complicates the story instead of enriching it.
Tish’s voice-over does a lot of work, guiding you through the narrative turns as it adds social commentary and personal asides. Layne and James are appealing, but perhaps because their characters’ lives are so fragmented, their performances never build the emotional momentum or find the depths of feeling the story needs. Jenkins does find it, though, most memorably in a staggering flashback with Fonny’s old friend, Daniel (a brilliant Brian Tyree Henry). Daniel has just been released from prison, after being framed by the police. Now, as he sits in Fonny and Tish’s home, gently held by love and friendship — and by Jenkins’ limpid gaze — Daniel seems to grow heavier, monumental. He’s sharing a familiar story of raw, brutal American racial injustice, and it is devastating.
“IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK”