The score of “If Beale Street Could Talk” stays with you long after the movie ends. Composer Nicholas Britell’s minimalist soundtrack swells and ebbs; the main theme a distant brass section doing a call and response with some strings. Paired with the music, the images recur too: close-up portraits of young lovers Tish and Fonny in 1970s New York looking almost right into the camera. A great film is one in which, long after you’ve left the theater, its feeling lingers.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name. While many book-to-screen adaptations fail to capture the ethos of their source material, that isn’t the case this time. “Beale Street” carefully recreates the world Baldwin builds in the book, doing it justice as it conveys the story to a much larger audience.
A story as relevant as when it was published, “Beale Street” is about a young, black couple torn apart by a racist system and a group of committed people working against the system to reunite the couple.
It starts with the narrator Tish, a pregnant, nineteen-year-old department store clerk, breaking the news to Fonny, her recently imprisoned boyfriend. They were going to make a life with each other, having just finally found an apartment that would rent to a black couple. Though their future has suddenly become uncertain, Fonny’s eyes light up behind the prison glass when Tish tells him. He’s ecstatic; he’s going to be a father.
Tish then tells her family about the baby. Tish’s mother Sharon, played with tender strength by Regina King, takes the news well enough and takes down the fine alcohol for when they have to tell her dad. He’s apprehensive at first, but they soon begin to celebrate—her dad lets out a joyous laugh at the prospect of being a grandfather. The moment soon sours after they invite Fonny’s family over to tell them about the baby.
His mother, Mrs. Hunt, is a memorable character from the novel: a cold, rigidly religious woman who finds no joy in the news. She and her likeminded daughters shoot venomous barbs at Tish for having the child out of wedlock—Mrs. Hunt even says that she wishes the baby would die before being born, at which she is violently slapped across the face by her alcoholic husband, Frank. The two fathers rush out to a bar, and the others are shooed out. The once joyful celebrations ends in altercation and vitriol.
To me, “Beale Street” is a romance about people living on the edge, trying to make a life for themselves in an economic and political system built on their subjugation. It’s a story about young people of color having their lives irrevocably altered on the whim of one white policeman and the hierarchy dedicated to preserving the racist social order. This is something the film transfers well from the novel, effectively conveying the frustratingly simple tragedy of the whole thing: Fonny shouldn’t be sitting in jail, accused of rape—he has an alibi. But that doesn’t matter to those in power. Now that he’s inside, it’s almost impossible to get him out.
But “Beale Street” isn’t hopelessly tragic; there’s an uplifting current in the love between Tish and Fonny and their families’ (minus Mrs. Hunt and her daughters) dedication and perseverance in the fight against the racist leviathan that endures in the American criminal justice system.
The two fathers begin working side hustles, selling stolen goods uptown to finance the legal operation. Tish stands behind the perfume counter at a department store, forced to smile and suffer dehumanizing attention from white men. The family’s resilient determination to persevere, in spite of harsh realities, is particularly inspiring.
Academy Award-winning “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins expertly weaves the narrative of Tish and Fonny’s romance into the pregnancy and prison plot. We elegantly move back and forth in time, our understanding of Tish and Fonny’s relationship grows as the prospects of Fonny ever being released from prison dim.
As an adaptation of a beloved classic, “Beale Street” succeeds because it doesn’t try to perfectly transform the book into a motion picture. It takes the spirit of Baldwin’s work, the scenario, setting and narrative technique—like Tish’s first-person narration—and reconstructs it all into a two hour film. Jenkins’s visuals fit the world conjured in Baldwin’s book, and the director imports his own exquisite close-up portraiture and a cinematographic style inspired by photographer Roy DeCarava’s stark depictions of quotidian life in Harlem.
But it’s all tied together with Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack, a sonic version of the film’s emotional experience. A handful of horns, woodwinds and strings evoke both sadness and hope. “Beale Street” depicts a harrowing reality, but also a powerful love that can endure beyond systemic oppression.