One of the best things about period films set in turbulent times in American history (Selma, The Long Walk Home) is that modern audiences are pushed to see how far things have come and how far they have yet to go. No matter what your politics are, everyone has to sit and grapple with their assumptions and perceptions while the drama unfolds onscreen.
Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) adapts James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk into an engrossing story that fits any decade. There’s turmoil brewing, a sense of righteous anger at the times, and then just laughs around a kitchen table when you know change is heating up around the corner. As the film rolls through the prism of youth, hope, and innocence, it offers a glimpse of people’s basic goodness, which topples any cynicism you could throw at it.
Even if you haven’t read Baldwin’s novel or experienced his words come to life in I Am Not Your Negro, Jenkins’ optimistic adaptation of Beale Street adds a visual world held up by pure emotion. Time moves forward in waves, in the expressiveness of the eyes of the lovers Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne), who keep their humility in the face of prison and the threat of separation. Fonny is fluent in Spanish, and Tish lovingly sees that as part of “his world.” Her world — pregnant at 19, a department store perfume girl — casts her as an outsider, and her inner voice is political, down to the completely different way white men approach her from black men. Jenkins’ Tish, as a narrator, is serene, strong and faithful to her truth, and it draws you in right to the last frame.
Both Fonny and Tish come from good Harlem families, hard-working and down to earth to the point where they end up on opposite sides trying to spring Fonny from jail. Highlight performances by Aunjanue Ellis and Regina King push the conflict between mothers whose children are constantly crushed on the outside, past the extent of their character on the inside. The kids try to rise above and live beyond what their parents know is possible. A bright future is like their bold fantasy, and much of the film weaves poetry into the small everyday moments of two dreamers – holding hands, the first thought of love, that first apartment. Every character you meet along the way, though not deeply explored, represents the hard and the soft of New York City in the ‘70s, where I could imagine the life and times of James Baldwin when he first published the novel in ‘74.
For 2018, Jenkins’ Beale Street delivers in so many subdued ways that it uplifts, makes you think, and has a compassion embedded in it that left me feeling more than stirred.