In If Beale Street Could Talk, a young Harlem couple in love gets caught in a spring rain under an umbrella — the camera seems to lift along with their spirits and follows them as they retreat through the warm colors of the city until they turn a corner into the future.
A classic big-screen romantic gesture. We’ve seen it an any number of Woody Allen or Nora Ephron movies about New York, and more recently in Brooklyn — Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, hand in hand on a busy boulevard, and as he describes his grand plans, you believe they’ll find a place in a growing and hopeful America.
In Barry Jenkins' 1970s-set film, however, the image has a different meaning. It suggests a future the couple should have but won’t. Racism intervenes — redlining separates Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) from the loft they want, disrupting Fonny’s own grand plan to be a sculptor. He then makes an antagonist of a hateful cop who arrests him on a rape charge, as flimsy as it is hard to dislodge.
What should be a blessing — Tish is pregnant — now becomes another source of stress. Fonny’ s folks do not approve of her, and there is a tumultuous early scene of the two families gathered for a would-be celebration that turns into a bitter exchange, complete with religious denouncement of the unwed couple.
Director Jenkins, Oscar winner for Moonlight, adapting (and ultimately softening) the novel by James Baldwin, comes at us with a rush of narrative information, making a quick sketch of the severe obstacles the young couple faces.
He also foreshadows the movie’s grim second half with an unsettling scene of Tish and Fonny sitting down to dinner with a friend (Brian Tyree Henry) just out of prison, who is pleasant and engaging company until he suddenly opens up about the immense psychic damage of being incarcerated — a small, vivid supporting turn.
It’s not long before Tish is visiting Fonny behind bars, and seeing the same haunted look in his eyes that she saw in his broken friend. He’s losing hope, a deficit that is taken up by the rest of her family. Kiki’s dad (Colman Domingo) starts working garment district hustles to raise money for his defense (Finn Wittrock is the lawyer who must jeopardize his own career standing to pursue the case). Her mother, played by Regina King, becomes a one-person detective agency. She goes all the way to Puerto Rico to search out Fonny’s accuser.
Jenkins, borrowing the novel’s template, has structural story issues to deal with here. What starts as a romance becomes scattered in a half dozen narrative directions. The moments that stand out are isolated and almost random — scenes featuring Henry, King, Domingo, and Michael Beach as Fonny’s dad.
This comes at the expense of our investment in the two leads, separated by circumstance and by the way the story unfolds. Jenkins himself seems to sense this, and he closes the movie with an affecting reunion scene of his own invention, reminding us of what Tish and Fonny had, and of what they might have yet.
Directed by Barry Jenkins. With Stephan James, KiKi Layne, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry, Colman Domingo, Michael Beach, and Finn Wittrock. Distributed by Annapurna.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.
Parents guide: R (language)