If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s heartbreaking novel about a young black couple separated by a false arrest, and the Moonlight director beautifully captures the romantic, yearning, angry, incisive tones of Baldwin’s voice

Film Review by Philip Concannon | 06 Feb 2019
  • Beale Street
Film title: If Beale Street Could Talk
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry
Release date: 8 Feb
Certificate: 15

If Beale Street Could Talk is only the second screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s work, following an obscure French take on the same novel in 1998, and the spirit of Baldwin infuses the whole movie. It feels like Barry Jenkins sat down with the late author to craft this screenplay, which has emerged as a brilliant fusion of their distinct artistic visions. It’s impossible to imagine a film better capturing the romantic, yearning, angry, incisive tones of Baldwin’s voice, and Jenkins’ attempt to find a cinematic equivalent to his prose has pushed the director and his cinematographer James Laxton to give us a visually rhapsodic experience.

The film opens with the camera swooning over Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they stroll through an autumnal New York. They are a young couple very much in love, and Jenkins makes us feel that love, his camera getting up close to the actors as they gaze adoringly at each other. They are soon ripped apart, when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, forcing the pregnant KiKi and her devoted parents (Colman Domingo and Regina King, both magnificent) to fight to prove his innocence.

While Jenkins cuts back-and-forth between this fraught central narrative and their past happiness together, he also allows us to spend time with Domingo and Michael Beach (Fonny's dad), as two fathers doing whatever it takes to support their offspring, while Regina King carries a powerful section of the film as she attempts to track down Fonny’s accuser. Jenkins draws flawless work from his ensemble, but the film’s standout performance comes from Brian Tyree Henry. He breezes into the film as Fonny’s childhood friend but his buoyant demeanour is stripped away over the course of a breathtaking ten-minute conversation, as he recalls his incarceration. He is an embodiment of the fear and insecurity felt by young black men living in a racist society, then and now.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a film about boundless love in the face of unimaginable hatred and injustice, and it is a triumph.

Released 8 Feb by Entertainment One; certificate 15