Early editions of James Baldwin’s Harlem-set love story If Beale Street Could Talk tended towards typographical cover design, or else they were dominated by a somewhat misleadingly Hollywood-ised illustration of two sunlit young black people in love.
What you might regard as the novel’s “Capulet and Capulet” romance, staged in the early 1970s, is not one that’s kept apart by warring families – although the pious religiosity of one side shows scorn to the less devout. Rather, it’s the institutional racism of everyday life, especially for young black people trying to get along, that rends its lovers – 22-year-old Fonny and 19-year-old Tish – asunder.
In 1962, Baldwin penned a long piece for the New Yorker about the institutional barriers and social assumptions of an upbringing in predominantly African-American ghettoes. “Perhaps,” he wrote, “we were, all of us – pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children – bound together by the nature of our oppression.” Such observations, as lived through rather than purely theoretical, made him a unique chronicler, autodidact and orator for the Civil Rights era.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins follows the lauded, Oscar-winning Moonlight with an achingly romantic but hard-centred slice of life. It is the false accusation by a Puerto Rican woman of rape by Fonny (Stephan James) that drives the tragedy. Opening in prison, a voiceover from Tish (KiKi Layne) proclaims, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass” – a reference to the partition that separates visitor from inmate in prison.
Such poetry confirms this as a thematic, artistic and political cousin to Moonlight, which unfolded over three time periods. The narrative here is more straightforward, but builds a picture through flashback of a relationship that seems to offer healing power to its protagonists. Like Moonlight, this is a film of uncommon beauty (shot once more by James Laxton) and deep emotional resonance (underscored by Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell).
The film also offers an unashamedly idealised depiction of love and hate (the latter grimacingly embodied by Ed Skrein’s racist cop), and deliberately so, as if to make the heartache of this couple’s separation after a swooningly decorous courtship even more painful. (It’s been noted that in Baldwin’s words, the “beautiful” Fonny of Tish’s gaze perhaps is less of an Adonis, with “skin like raw, wet potato” and “bunions on his ankle bones”, while James is a picture of chiselled beauty.)
Elsewhere, Regina King brings full righteous power to Tish’s mother in a one-woman quest to talk her future son-in-law’s “victim” into withdrawing her accusation, while Colman Domingo and Michael Beach find peace over a few drinks in a bar while the women of the families are at war.
The acting and staging, especially during the big, noisy family showdown, are impeccable. Jenkins takes the same risks he took with the three unknown actors playing Chiron in Moonlight with the casting of Layne and James. Their shared sexual awakening is charged by a raw passion and anxious chivalry in a suitably grotty basement where Fonny creates modern art out of rough hunks of wood – another apparent reason not to lock up this artistic soul.
Some audiences may find the whole thing a little overplayed and underlined. The opening courtship scene feels like it may explode into a La La Land-esque dance routine at any moment. Your reaction will either be to run with the heightened emotion or run for the exit.
The experience of watching If Beale Street Could Talk makes the world of Moonlight feel even more important and contemporary. But then it should do, as Moonlight concludes in the present day and explores homosexuality in a way that would perplex characters in Beale Street. Even Byron Tyree Henry’s fulsomely played ex-prisoner is able only to hint that he was sexually assaulted in the penitentiary while covering his semaphored abuse with light-hearted, beer-lubricated male banter.
You sense a real body of work forming here. The director is said to be developing another novel about the black experience, this time slavery in The Underground Railroad. If Beale Street could talk, it might very well sound like Barry Jenkins.
If Beale Street Could Talk is released in cinemas on Friday 8 February