“If Beale Street Could Talk” carves a holy place in a hard, hard world. The achievement of Barry Jenkins’s film, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a young black couple in early-’70s New York, is that it enshrines two lovers in the strength of their love while holding out hope — visually, sonically, emotionally, spiritually — for a world that hardly seems to deserve it.
“Beale Street” opens on Christmas Day.
Baldwin understood he was cutting across the grain of a reader’s assumptions, particularly a white reader’s assumptions, and Jenkins follows suit. Fonny (Stephan James) is 22, a dropout, a black man falsely accused of rape, and he’s also an artist, a gentle soul, a man seeking to build a safe place in a harsh world for the woman he loves. Tish (KiKi Layne) is 18 and pregnant and scared — and also lit up with tenderness and joy for the life she’s carrying and the man with whom she created it. You think you know what’s going on, the story says, but you have no idea.
Early in the movie, Tish has to tell her mother, Sharon (a wonderful Regina King), father, Joe (Colman Domingo), and sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), about the coming child, and the scene unfolds in a way we simply haven’t seen before in an American movie, shock giving way to strength and warm celebration, a shoring up for hard times ahead. Then they invite Fonny’s parents over to tell them, we glimpse the fractured coldness between a Bible-thumping mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and an abusive husband (Michael Beach), and we grasp the bulwark that a genuinely loving family can be. (Jenkins let’s Al Green’s cover of “For the Good Times” unfurl cheekily beneath.)
“If Beale Street Could Talk” flashes back and forth in time, between sequences of the young lovers searching Greenwich Village for a home and the efforts of Tish’s family to get Fonny out of jail. No one will rent to the couple until a young Jewish landlord (Dave Franco) offers them a loft space, a blank template from which to form a nest, and the Village at the turn of the ’70s seems welcoming and colorblind until the arrival of a racist policeman (Ed Skrein) reminds us that it’s not.
In those early scenes, Jenkins uses his filmmaking skills much as he did in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” (2016), with James Laxton’s honeyed, luminescent cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s almost painfully beautiful score establishing a hyperreal sense of experience — of life lived absolutely in the present tense.
This against all the evidence needed to prove what Baldwin wrote in 1970, in a letter to activist Angela Davis: “The American triumph — in which the American tragedy has always been implicit — was to make black people despise themselves.” One of Fonny’s friends, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, Paper Boi from TV’s “Atlanta”), is just out of prison, a big man finally defeated, and the late-night scene in which he pours out his exhaustion over being a black man in white America hits an audience softly while leaving a lasting bruise. (Henry, who’s also the crooked politician in “Widows” and the voice of the dad in the new “Spider-Man” movie, deserves some kind of 2018 award for Body of Work.)
We see that exhaustion, that sense of total entrapment, sink into Fonny in the other scenes, as Tish visits him in jail with barely encouraging news from their lawyer (an idealistic young Finn Wittrock) and her mother flies off to seek out the rape victim, Victoria (Emily Rios), who prosecutors have sent to hide out in Puerto Rico and ensure their case. The sequence where the two women meet is heartbreaking mostly for the damage it reveals across every stratum of the powerless. The system that destroys people like Victoria and Fonny and Daniel is never glimpsed in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” We only see their instruments, who carry badges and build prisons and pass judgments based on what they think they know.
And yet, somehow, this movie remains hopeful — you can hear it in the score’s aching strings and in the looks Tish gives Fonny, both actors giving simple, even childlike performances because nothing else is asked for. (The Nativity does not seem far away at times.) Baldwin knew that hope is the engine that takes us to the future, to a changed and better day, and whether that hope is embodied in action, in expression, or in a child is immaterial. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a stained-glass window looking out onto what could still be.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Directed by Barry Jenkins. Written by Jenkins, based on the novel by James Baldwin. Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry. At Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, suburbs. 119 minutes. R (language, some sexual content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.