By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK (CNS) — “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Annapurna) is a faithful, evocative and reverent adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a struggling young African-American couple, with many of the attendant weaknesses such careful film realizations can bring with them.
For starters, much of the dialogue, scripted by director Barry Jenkins, is more recited than spoken — close to realistic, but falling into some foggy region usually occupied by historical epics and clunky performances of Shakespeare.
Jenkins likewise conveys the inner anguish of the characters with long, exceedingly slow close-ups of pained faces. Combined with the voice-over narration of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), the overall effect is rigid fealty to Baldwin, and it’s a bit of a slog to sit through.
Baldwin wrote with the clearest of unsparing eyes about the national racial divide and the lack of justice resulting from it, as well as the raw hostility African-Americans face in a world constructed around white prejudices. He centered this story on an idealized duo who are deeply in love, but rather than plunging them into inescapable suffering, he gave them a glimmer of hope.
Families remain intact, and their ideas about moral behavior are strong through the worst of circumstances. Everyone has a task to perform, and they stay grounded in the effort.
Tish, who is 19, is engaged to Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), a handsome 22-year-old sculptor who lives in a decrepit basement apartment in Harlem. In scenes shown in flashback, she becomes pregnant at around the same time a racist policeman, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), frames Fonny for the rape of Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), a Puerto Rican woman.
Everyone understands that this tragedy can’t just be turned around, even when Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), travels to Puerto Rico on an emotional mission to get Victoria to drop her accusation.
Fonny has a priggish, Bible-quoting, unnamed mom (Aunjanue Ellis), who lectures about immorality, but his father, Frank (Michael Beach), who slaps her in a rage — a moment that probably registers as much more unpleasant now than it might have in 1974 — has no time to waste in making judgments. A baby’s impending arrival is to be celebrated, and likewise, Fonny’s incarceration is to be fought by all means available.
There’s even a prophet of doom in Fonny’s friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit, who turns from joviality to raw fear as he hints about the degradations and hopelessness of two years in prison.
Abiding love and family ties carry the day here, in spite of an unfair legal system that attempts to deny black men, particularly, any semblance of humanity. Joy finds a way to co-exist with gloom and won’t let itself be buried under any set of circumstances.
The film contains two nonmarital sexual encounters, brief upper female nudity, momentary domestic abuse, a few racial slurs and fleeting rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.