Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk captures the psychological horror of racism

Standfirst: In this James Baldwin adaptation, Jenkins’s knack for finding visual equivalents for literary pleasures exceeds expectations.

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James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk refers to a Harlem neighbourhood but its universality is implied, just as the particular racism faced by its young African-American hero Fonny, framed by white cops for a violent crime, stands in for all such oppression. No one would question the credentials of Barry Jenkins in adapting the book for cinema – this is the man who made a rapturous, sensual art movie against a backdrop of drugs and gangs in the Oscar-winning Moonlight – but his knack for finding visual equivalents for literary pleasures exceeds expectations.

In the opening shot, Fonny (Stephan James) and his girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) stand in the sun, preparing to say goodbye. Fonny wears a blue jacket over a yellow shirt, while Tish has a yellow duster coat over a blue top. Hats off to the costume designer, Caroline Eselin, for evocative 1970s threads that are the next best thing to time travel, and to Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton for using them in the frame to deepen character and story. Those yellows and blues show Fonny and Tish to be closely intertwined long before we see evidence of the courtship that took them from childhood playmates to lovers.

These colours are repeated in the next scene, but without the vitality. Fonny is still in blue, only now it’s a pale, prison-issue shirt, and the walls are a feeble, diluted yellow. Tish, separated from her man by a sheet of glass, is wearing a lush green corduroy coat, a verdant bulletin from the outside world. It’s like the dove bringing Noah an olive leaf after the flood – a sign that life is still thriving. The fight goes on.

That’s true enough for Tish and her family, who are determined to prove Fonny innocent of the crime for which he’s been imprisoned. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) has fetching green drapes in her home, and wears a green dress when she flies to Puerto Rico in a last-ditch attempt to clear Fonny’s name. But she is most strongly associated with her ketchup-red slacks, which hint at her unquenchable love. When Tish reveals that she’s pregnant, Sharon doesn’t flinch: she rallies the rest of the family into drinking a toast, and calls for Fonny’s clan to join the party. A scene like this – nine people in a cluttered room, insults flying as the celebration becomes a confrontation – could flummox any director, but Jenkins lends the interplay of bodies, colours and action the effortless fluidity of a musical number.

He’s equally adept at intimacy. Scenes between Fonny and Tish often place us squarely in the middle of their exchanges, so that each of them is addressing the camera directly; it’s a device used by, among others, Hitchcock and Jonathan Demme (think of The Silence of the Lambs, with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins delivering their lines straight into the lens), and it makes the audience part of the most private transaction. It’s especially wrenching during Tish’s prison visits. “Do you understand what’s happening to me, to me in here?” pleads Fonny. That repetition of “to me” is crucial, as is the close-up of Stephan James, his majestic brow crumpling like a car in a fender-bender.

If Beale Street Could Talk is saturated in Nicholas Britell’s gorgeous score, and patrolled by a camera that sometimes makes its presence too strongly felt. The quietest scenes stand out: Fonny inviting Tish to imagine the home they will make in an unpromising derelict loft, or Fonny and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) talking about leaving America, this country that hates them so. Through the wall comes the murmur of jazz. “The things I’ve seen,” says Daniel. “I be dreaming about it till the day I die.” This plain moment is a virtual ellipsis in a film that can be almost hectoring in its beauty.

Jenkins’s greatest achievement is to recreate Baldwin’s depiction of the psychological horror of racism, the dread and claustrophobia it generates, along with the surging passion the couple use to try to defeat it. He dramatises the social forces that conspire against fulfilment. Love may not be enough, the film says, without equality, justice and economics. But it’s something. It’s a start. 

If Beale Street Could Talk (15)
dir: Barry Jenkins

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe