‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Film Review: Barry Jenkins Grapples With James Baldwin’s Prose in Powerful Drama

The film shows glimmers of the artistry of “Moonlight,” but it also has difficulty translating Baldwin’s novel to the big screen

If Beale Street Could Talk Barry Jenkins Regina King Kiki Layne Tish Stephan James Fonny
Tatum Mangus/Annapurna

Faith in a very pure romantic attraction between two people was the dramatic core of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” and that same faith is the animating principle of his much-anticipated follow-up, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a rich but very unwieldy adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.

“Moonlight” originated in a story from the gifted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Jenkins was able to make the narrative of that sensitive film his own by applying a poetic kind of stealth to the subjective visuals. But Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” makes for a much more demanding and intimidating authorial basis for a movie.

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, “Race”) have known each other since they were children. Jenkins’ film, like Baldwin’s novel, is told from Tish’s point of view and moves backward and forward in time in a way that suggests puzzle pieces scattered out on a table.

Tish is 19 years old and Fonny is 22 when they first begin to love each other in a romantic, adult and sexual fashion, and Jenkins begins his movie with a shot of them walking together. They stare into each other’s eyes and seem to get lost there, but that process is abruptly halted when we learn that Fonny has been put in jail for a crime he did not commit. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says on the soundtrack. We see her meeting with Fonny in prison and telling him that she is pregnant with his child.

There is a formality to the language here and to the heightened, rather torturously plotted dramatic situations, and so Jenkins wisely tries to put everything across visually as simply as possible. This is not a director’s performance type of movie as “Moonlight” was but more like a test of skill and imagination. What needs to really be stressed in any assessment of “If Beale Street Could Talk” is just how difficult Baldwin’s source material is to translate into a film.

Toward the beginning of this movie, there is an outsized, Shakespearean confrontation scene between Tish and her parents and Fonny’s family, which is dominated by his very religious mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis). Tish tells us on the soundtrack that Mrs. Hunt both disapproves of her as a mate for her son and also sometimes thinks that Fonny deserves her as a kind of punishment. This sort of deep-dish psychological observation sounds very literary, and when we hear it as narration and then see how Mrs. Hunt behaves, the effect feels somehow unbalanced, or top-heavy.

There is a sense sometimes in “If Beale Street Could Talk” that Tish’s narration competes with the imagery rather than deepening it. There are worse problems a film can have than overly brilliant writing, of course, but it is Baldwin’s lyric talent that puts over the tangled plot he chose, and Jenkins might have had an easier time if he had simplified this plot somewhat and cut down on the novelistic sprawl.

Fonny has been falsely accused of rape by Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), a Latinx woman who has fled to Puerto Rico after picking Fonny out in a line-up. It is made clear that Fonny has been railroaded by a white cop who has it in for him, and it is also made clear that Victoria has been raped, just not by Fonny. But a narrative that revolves around a false rape charge has unfortunate resonances in this particular American moment.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” contains some indelible moments, none more so than a brief scene involving Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), who goes down to Puerto Rico to try to convince Victoria to save Fonny. When she gets to her hotel room, Sharon tries on a wig that she brought for the occasion, and then she slowly takes it off. Sharon is tired of the falseness of this wig, and King gets across how deep this tiredness goes.

And so it feels tragic when the next scene shows Sharon wearing the wig, which has the unintended consequence of making her look too slickly armored and insincere to the man she has come to see about Victoria. (In Baldwin’s novel, Sharon covers her head with a shawl, and Jenkins’ use of a wig instead really adds something emotional and profound to the drama.)

In this sequence in Puerto Rico, and in other scenes of attempted connection and disconnection between people, Jenkins shows some of the talent he displayed in “Moonlight.” This is a film worth grappling with, even if Baldwin’s own talent has a diva-like way of pulling the focus back to his book and away from what we are seeing on the screen.