At the end of If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’s film adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, the main characters, Tish and Fonny, sit with their son in the visiting room of the prison where Fonny has been incarcerated for several years. As their voices fade and their conversation becomes harder to make out, a weary rendition of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” begins to play and the credits roll. The takeaway here—unsubtle but still provocative—is that for black families, burdened by the injustices of the U.S. legal system, citizenship is both a birthright and a plight. How can we feel at ease in a home that is also a torture chamber?
That is where Jenkins leaves us, but it is not the complete expression of where he wants us to go. This is his third feature-length film, and at the center of each of them is a love story. His first, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, is a romantic drama about an extended one-night stand between two black hipsters in a gentrifying San Francisco. Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) hook up at a party without getting each other’s names. They spend the next day exploring the city they love, whose changes they are witnessing as young adults. Their differing views on the politics of blackness (Micah is race-conscious and activist-minded, whereas Jo prefers not to define herself solely through the lens of blackness), as well as Jo’s existing relationship, threaten to derail whatever chemistry they have.
Jenkins’s second film turned him into a star. Moonlight famously and infamously won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017, though the Hollywood musical La La Land was originally announced as the winner during the broadcast. (Jenkins also picked up an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, co-written with Tarell Alvin McCraney, on whose play the script is based.) Moonlight is a triptych coming-of-age story about a young black Miami native named Chiron, alternatively called Little and Black at different points of his life. He grows up with a crack-addicted mother and adopts her dealer as a father figure. He is also relentlessly teased by other children for his imagined homosexuality. As a teenager, he has a single sexual experience with his only real friend, but the two young men drift apart as their lives go on to be defined by violence, prison, and the ongoing illegal drug trade.
Both Moonlight and Medicine concern black people trying to find pathways toward love that will sustain them through the hardships of their black American experience. In If Beale Street Could Talk, too, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) live a version of this, facing separation when Fonny is imprisoned just as Tish learns she is pregnant. It has taken until now for a filmmaker to adapt Baldwin’s 1974 novel—in part because his family has closely guarded the legendary author’s estate—but Jenkins shows a particular affinity for his work. A preoccupation with love, and more specifically with the ways black people find to express love among themselves, connects him and Baldwin. Neither is totally convinced that love is what will save us, but they still believe in its transformative potential.
Even for Jenkins, riding high from the success of Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk was a formidable undertaking. Baldwin was a prophetic writer—the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka called him “God’s black revolutionary mouth.” His critiques of American racism still stand today, and have influenced subsequent generations of black writers, from Ta-Nehisi Coates—who famously modeled his blockbuster memoir, Between the World and Me, after Baldwin’s essay “My Dungeon Shook”—to the writers in Jesmyn Ward’s anthology The Fire This Time. To bring one of his novels to the screen is to engage with the artistry and force of a whole tradition.
In the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which was based on Baldwin’s unpublished memoir Remember This House, Raoul Peck made the language the focus of his film—pairing Samuel L. Jackson’s voice-over with imagery that matched the intensity of the critique. And, though Peck’s film was nonfiction and Jenkins’s is a drama, Jenkins’s instinct, too, has been to lean on Baldwin’s words. Tish, who is the narrator in the novel, also narrates here through voice-over. Her story begins in prison, where she is visiting Fonny to bring him the news that they are expecting a child together. Fonny is elated, despite his circumstances—he has been accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, and while he maintains his innocence, the legal system, aided by a racist white police officer, seems intent on keeping him locked away.
This part of the story is difficult territory, especially in our current cultural environment. There is a history of false rape accusations against black men, which have largely been used as pretext for lynchings. This was a grave concern during Baldwin’s era, and though it is not as much today, we still live in a world in which such accusations persist: In October, a white woman in Brooklyn claimed that a nine-year-old black boy sexually assaulted her, after his backpack brushed against her in a crowded deli. At the same time, the #MeToo movement is emphasizing the importance of listening to women’s stories of rape, assault, and harassment, and taking those stories seriously. A plot centering on a false accusation could cut against the principle of believing women. The danger in adapting this story would be to ask which group is more credible, whose historical mistreatment deserves more weight.
Beale Street, though, is not neatly enclosed in any binary. Baldwin’s novel takes care to give voice to Fonny’s accuser, Victoria Rogers, while also depicting Fonny’s own suffering—and Jenkins carries this nuance into his film. In one scene, Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), has flown to Puerto Rico to try to convince Victoria (Emily Rios) to recant her accusation. “I was a woman before you got to be a woman. Remember that,” Sharon tells Victoria, assuring her that she knows what it is to be violated in such a way, to feel men’s violence against her own body. But she cannot bring herself to believe that Fonny is capable of such an act, having known him since he was a child. In the book, Victoria has an eloquent and indignant response to that view:
Hah!… If you knew how many women I’ve heard say that. They didn’t see him—when I saw him—when he came to me! They never see that. Respectable women—like you!—they never see that.…You might have known a nice little boy, and he might be a nice man—with you! But you don’t know the man who did—who did—what he did to me!
In the film, she is quieter—she trembles as Sharon pleads but she doesn’t bow to pressure. She refuses to say she is lying or has been coerced into identifying Fonny. Jenkins tends to suggest that Fonny was set up, but his innocence is never made entirely clear.
It took a delicate hand to ensure these somewhat competing truths did not break the narrative apart. But there’s something else that guides Jenkins, generally and more acutely with Beale Street: He provides space for his character’s flaws while never allowing those flaws to define them. He is not interested in exonerating them, but rather in indicting the world that makes love so difficult for them to attain.
In Moonlight, Chiron has been deemed wrong by his surroundings—he’s too feminine, too queer, too quiet to be accepted. The only one of his peers willing to speak to him in a way that is not demeaning is ultimately responsible for his tenderest adolescent moment and the most vicious violence he experiences. They are both trying to prove themselves hard enough to survive a time and place in which the touch they crave from each other is discouraged by an unrelenting homophobia.
Beale Street is, like Medicine for Melancholy, concerned with a more hetero love story, but it shares that sense of outside forces haunting young black people’s ability to hold onto each other’s love before something threatens to break them apart. Tish and Fonny never manage to buy their own home. After he’s sent to prison, Fonny’s best alibi, his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), is considered an untrustworthy witness because he himself just got out of prison after a wrongful conviction (which he details in the film’s most powerful scene). Fonny’s legal fees keep running higher and higher, causing the two lovers’ fathers to scheme on some illegal hustles to make certain they can continue to fight his case. All those involved find themselves in this predicament only because a racist police officer has made Fonny his personal enemy.
Everything is stacked against Tish and Fonny. His masculine pride doesn’t allow him to see how much she suffers alongside him, leading her to remind him, during one of her visits, that she, too, is going through this ordeal. In his book on film criticism, The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin writes, “The private life of a black woman ... cannot really be considered at all.… The situation of the black heroine ... must always be left at society’s mercy” for the sake of preserving white innocence. Though Baldwin identified this tendency, he never quite engages with it in his novel; Jenkins makes the choice to take Tish’s pain seriously.
What Jenkins does best—in a film dominated by Baldwin’s prose—is convey emotion through silence. The first time Tish and Fonny make love, they don’t speak to each other in the moments leading up to the act. Jenkins lingers on their bodies, Tish’s virginal vulnerability, Fonny’s tender knowing. They look into each other’s eyes, up close and from across the room—Jenkins’s languid camera movements from one to the other make it feel as if the audience is in between them. When Fonny undresses, his beauty is so distracting that you could miss that he’s almost as nervous as Tish, who can’t take her eyes off of him. He approaches her, and you can nearly feel their quick breaths on the back of your neck. By the time he is on top her, telling her that she will have to learn to trust him, you’re in love for them.
That’s precisely what Jenkins wants; this closeness makes it all the more devastating, later, when he has to break your heart.