For his follow-up to the Best Picture winner “Moonlight,” director Barry Jenkins delivered a vivid and deeply romantic adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” on Sunday at the Toronto Film Festival.
The film is a bold and elegant celebration of young black love in the face of a Harlem rife with police corruption. The leads, Canadian actor Stephan James and newcomer KiKi Layne, received a standing ovation alongside Jenkins after credits rolled at the Princess of Wales theater.
Stephan and Layne play 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Alfonzo (Fonny, for short), lifelong friends whose soul connection is so pure that Jenkins paints it as divine — even as the sociopolitical climate of their time threatens to tear them apart.
Tish is a good girl from a hardworking Harlem family, represented in salt-of-the-earth performances from Regina King, Colman Domingo and scene stealer Teyonah Parris (“Chi-Raq,” “Mad Men”).
When we first meet her, Tish must break the serious news that she’s expecting Fonny’s baby to her own blood and the snooty women of Fonny’s nuclear family. Not only are the lovers unwed, Fonny is currently behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit.
It’s a violent sex crime committed against a woman he does not know, in a neighborhood far away. A crime for which he has a two eyewitnesses corroborating his alibi, and only a racist cop as a witness for the prosecution. To say nothing of the fact that he vehemently denies it, and the whole of these characters spend the duration of the film agonizing over the impossibility of the event.
But there he sits behind glass, pining for his love and the child that grows within her. Tish, too, becomes bound by the financial strain of his defense, the judgment of her mother-in-law, the physical stress of holding down a job and surviving a turbulent pregnancy. She navigates this as a young black woman in an historical moment that does not want her to succeed. That does not want her to be visible.
“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy,” wrote James Baldwin, as shown on a title card before the film begins.
“Moonlight” showed us how shame, abuse and isolation evade individual circumstances, “Beale Street” shows us in gorgeous and saturated detail how powerful discovering love can be — and how long it lingers through trials and degradation.
In their moments walking the streets, apartment hunting or having sex for the first time, composer Nicholas Britell gives Tish and Fonny orchestral string pieces so haunting and poignant that one pull of the bow feels like hours playing inside these intimate images.
Their glances, light touches, their smiles, even their squabbles and mundane chores are breathtaking. These moments are purposefully and justly given reverence by Jenkins, who after the premiere said “Moonlight” told the story of the family he had and “Beale Street” was the family he dreamt of.
It’s there in this work, that dream. “Beale Street” is not inclusive, it is transcendent.
The tragedy here is what befalls Fonny and so many men like him, in the 70s and now. A broken system cannot provide the happy ending worthy of such epic romance. It feels like a purposeful gut punch from Jenkins, how deserving his lead characters are of happiness and how completely unrealistic it is they would find it.
“We’re not 19 and 22 anymore,” Tish observes at the end of the film. “We can’t afford to be.”
It leaves a bitter taste, wondering how many love stories and other human triumphs are untold because their heroes are behind bars — or on the other side of the glass waiting to lift the phone and reach the other side.