The first draft of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ a reverent adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, was written by Barry Jenkins over the same 3-week period in which he wrote ‘Moonlight.’ The latter script – to the writer-director’s surprise – was produced first, and quickly became the most universally adored movie of 2016. Only his second film, ‘Moonlight’ hit audiences with a fully-seen-through vision of such rare honesty & subjectivity that it seemed to be something entirely new. The passion of the project – and the truly new way in which a film about an impoverished, gay, black boy was brought to the mainstream – even seemed to rip the veneer of controlled prestige off of Hollywood, for the briefest and most bizarre of moments. At the Oscars that year, the producers of the very old-school (and very white) ‘La La Land’ had to give their Best Picture Oscar over to ‘Moonlight,’ in a nationally-televised about-face that would seem scripted if it wasn’t so obviously, awkwardly, wonderfully accidental.
‘Beale Street’ is a very different movie. It’s a strict adaptation, with nearly every scene & line of dialogue directly transposed from Baldwin’s text. A love story set in Harlem in the 1970s, it tells the tale of Tish (Kiki Layne), who is deeply in love with Fonny (Stephan James), and who is carrying his child. At the opening of the movie, and at the center of the story, Fonny is in prison for a crime – a rape – he did not commit. Tish delivers news of the baby to him as they both hold phones to their ears, during visiting hours. “I hope no one has ever had to look at someone they love through glass,” are the first words spoken, directly to us, by Tish, as she tries to begin the conversation.
That voice-over that opens the film continues throughout it, the point-of-view always Tish’s. The lyricism of Baldwin’s words make some sense as a framing device: the narration is clearly retrospective, or longing, or both, and it gives a sense of understanding to the miseries and joys that we witness, scene to scene. But as spoken by the actors within those scenes, the dialogue becomes not entirely sound – the cracks in the lives of the characters make no fissure in their language because all they’re given to say are the words of Baldwin, who is a poet, and a great one. The colors, too, give things a vein of heightened reality; see the deep, bright yellow that connects Tish and Fonny’s clothes to the autumn trees of Central park in the movie’s first moments. It’s as if the two of them, and all their love, are lifting up and away from the world.
Jenkins falls into a trap of adoration in adapting much of the dialogue; that is, he loves the words too much to adapt them. The effect is actually quite strange: a gorgeous, mesmerizing film that never quite seems to come down to Earth. Much like the matching colors that make up the character’s lives, Baldwin’s words seem to be bringing the scenes into a place of dreams, or fantasy, or memory, at any given moment. In theory, this works. It is, after all, a love story. And there are moments of utter beauty here: Tish & Fonny walking through the village under rainy skies; Tish and her mother, Sharon (an outrageously good Regina King), sitting in the kitchen as news of the baby is delivered; Sharon, much later, dressing her face in front of a mirror; Fonny, who is a sculptor, looking toward an incomplete project as if it were a lost piece of his own body; the two young lovers, spending their first night together.
These scenes are the best in the film, and they are all mostly non-verbal. There’s a primacy to the way Jenkins (working here with James Laxton behind the camera, as on ‘Moonlight’) constructs an image that isn’t unlike the way Baldwin sometimes conducts a sentence or paragraph. Take a fragment like, “…and now she paused, and, in a way, she was no longer Sharon, my mother, but someone else; but that someone else was, precisely, my mother, Sharon…” Jenkins’s way of framing faces and eyes and skin, his way of letting actors perform directly to camera, with the world melting away behind them, would seem the perfect fit to crystallize Baldwin’s melding of experience and understanding into a single, empathic image. Which is why the words themselves often take away from the effect: with direct phrases of the text being spoken in conversation, they read as ideas, as metaphors, rather than lived reality.
That piece of the story, a lived-in world, is the one that is most missing from ‘Beale Street.’ It tells a real love story but leaves out the context of its subjects’ bodies, and the tactile reality of their community. The film includes nothing but direct quotes from the novel, but it leaves out a meaningful number of scenes that allow us to understand the meaning of those words. Of noticeable omission are several tragedies that live in the background of the story: the shattering experience of prison life, shared by Fonny and his good friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, whom we should all be grateful to see so much of lately); the terrible final fate of Fonny’s alleged victim, who was raped by an unknown man; the crushing poverty that Tish’s mother sees firsthand during a brief trip to Puerto Rico. By leaving out this background, entire arcs of nearly every supporting player in Tish and Fonny’s lives are missing: Daniel, Sharon, Frank, Joseph, Ernestine, and others all get little if any, of the history that they are due. And in a film about family, history is everything.
It’s a real loss, and it hurts the film in the end, because Jenkins’s romance, like Baldwin’s, is also supposed to be an ever-emerging tragedy of generational sacrifice. The final image, perhaps one of most memorable shots of the year, shows that the film is concerned with precisely that. And yet to construct that ending, the final pages of the book have been radically changed: a remarkable decision, considering the gravity with which Baldwin’s words clearly rest in the mind of the director. It’s because of these odd choices in what’s left out, and equally, what’s left in, that the tensions on which ‘Beale Street’ is built – tensions between Baldwin’s words of hope and his descriptions of a devastating reality – are so frustratingly inconsistent.
Still, it may be apparent only because similar opposing forces were so effortlessly brought together in ‘Moonlight,’ which managed, somehow, to be a movie about grace and hate and love and suffering all at the same time, oftentimes within the same exact moment. This is a much broader undertaking, and it chooses to communicate the love before all else. If anything, we just don’t need the convincing: as soon as Fonny throws his head back in tears and in wonder at Tish’s news of their baby, we love them already. Even as we’re looking at them through glass.
The film hits theaters this Friday.