Renowned for his lush visual style, Jenkins lavishes his craft on this powerful and intimate story of African-American lives shattered by injustice and racial discrimination in an adaptation that is mostly faithful to Baldwin’s voice and political vision.
Set in Harlem, the film follows the love story of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James) – or Fonny, as he is called by all who know him – who has been incarcerated after a false accusation of rape.
The film opens with the two young lovers walking hand in hand along the Hudson River, obviously deep in love. The scene then shifts to a prison where, through a glass divider, Tish reveals to Fonny that she is pregnant with his child. After a moment of uncertainty, he is delighted at the news and Tish seems confident that he will be free by the time the baby is born.
Fonny has been targeted by a vengeful white cop and, as a result, is in prison awaiting trial for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, despite having an alibi. Tish and her loyal, loving but poor family, including outspoken sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) and unwaveringly supportive mother Sharon (Regina King), have employed a white lawyer and are scrambling to find the funds to mount a legal defence to clear his name.
The story unfolds in a non-linear way, flowing back and forth between the family’s legal struggle and scenes from the couple’s blossoming love, including the significant moments just prior to Fonny’s arrest. This juxtaposition of Tish and Fonny’s romance, and the tension arising from the family’s battle against a legal system weighted against them, gives the film a political gravity that works in wonderful contrast to the lush sensuality of the love story.
While this adaptation isn’t completely faithful to Baldwin’s characters, Tish and Fonny being less aesthetically perfect and slightly more flawed in the novel, Jenkins is loyal to Baldwin’s themes of racism and injustice.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a gorgeously crafted, brilliantly acted and heartfelt film that is true to James Baldwin’s legacy in that it locates the source of strength and resilience of African-American communities in a deep capacity for love and family.