Can love sur­vive in a hate­ful world?

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

The first thing we see in “If Beale Street Could Talk” emerges as text on a black screen, a quo­ta­tion from au­thor James Bald­win. “Beale Street,” he wrote, “is a street in New Or­leans, where my fa­ther, where Louis Arm­strong and the jazz were born. Ev­ery black per­son born in Amer­ica was born on Beale Street, whether in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi, or in Har­lem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”

The street, the metaphor, is wide enough to ac­com­mo­date all sorts of trav­el­ers. With his se­ri­ously gor­geous adap­ta­tion of the 1974 Bald­win novel, writer-di­rec­tor Barry Jenk­ins has re­sponded to Bald­win’s lyrical an­guish by cre­at­ing a world of warmth and pos­si­bil­ity amid ev­ery­day cal­lous­ness. Jenk­ins’ first film since the pearl that was the Academy Award-winning “Moon­light” re­sem­bles the novel in some ways. In oth­ers, it’s very much its own cre­ation. It’s as if Bald­win had met Jenk­ins on the boule­vard, shaken his hand and said: “It’s all yours now.”

This is the first English­language the­atri­cal re­lease based on a Bald­win novel, which is pretty as­ton­ish­ing. The French-lan­guage “Where the Heart is,” from 1998, rep­re­sented a very loose adap­ta­tion, and there have been other Bald­win projects on film and tele­vi­sion, most re­cently the fab­u­lous Raoul Peck doc­u­men­tary “I Am Not Your Ne­gro.”

The first time we see Alonzo, known as Fonny, and Cle­men­tine, known as Tish, they’re strolling down by the river. Com­poser Ni­cholas Britell’s in­sin­u­at­ing, sup­ple mu­sic (a film high­light of 2018) seems to be set­ting the scene for a mo­men­tous MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage and some sex­ual con­tent) Run­ning time: 1:56 oc­ca­sion.

Tish is 19; Fonny is 22. At this point in “Beale Street’ they’re plainly in love and, as it hap­pens, on the verge of mak­ing love for the first time. Friends since child­hood, their at­trac­tion has grown naturally. KiKi Layne, in a for­mi­da­ble big-screen de­but, makes this young woman naive and vulnerable, but not cred­u­lous, or sim­ple. Stephan James’ Fonny matches her step for step; he’s a force­fully charis­matic em­bod­i­ment of a soul mate who has found a soul mate.

Fonny, a short-or­der cook some­times, a sculp­tor and a wood­worker full­time, has plenty go­ing against him as a black man in Amer­ica. Bald­win’s story is that story: What hap­pens to Fonny, when he’s wrongly ac­cused of rape, doesn’t feel like it be­longs to 1974. Or only 1974, cer­tainly. On movie screens this year, in so many strong films, vari­a­tions on the grim theme of wrong­ful in­car­cer­a­tion, of AfricanAmer­i­cans dy­ing at the hands of those charged to pro­tect the in­no­cent, have floated through “The Hate U Give,” “Wi­d­ows” and oth­ers like a poi­son gas.

“Beale Street” is not new in that re­gard, but it’s also far more than the sum of its nar­ra­tive ad­ver­si­ties. Through the story of Tish and Fonny, and their in­ti­mately en­twined fam­i­lies work­ing to get him out of prison, many more char­ac­ters take the stage. Regina King ex­cels as Tish’s mother, Sharon, a marvel of in­tu­ition and strength. She leads a match­less en­sem­ble in­clud­ing Col­man Domingo’s re­laxed, lov­ing hus­band, Joseph. Brian Tyree Henry strides into the film as an old friend of Fonny’s, re­cently sprung from prison. He’s like a har­bin­ger of Fonny’s own fate, and their sin­gle, fan­tas­ti­cally fluid en­counter, at Fonny’s down­town stu­dio, is a marvel of in­ter­ac­tion.

“Beale Street” isn’t all gold, it must be said. Bald- win risks some ob­vi­ous­ness in his de­pic­tion of Fonny’s fam­ily, par­tic­u­larly that of his fierce church­go­ing pill of a mother (Aun­janue L. El­lis). But a key early scene, where Tish an­nounces her preg­nancy, hums with dra­matic elec­tric­ity, some un­ex­pect­edly sharp zingers and, cru­cially, an un­der­stand­ing of clash­ing points of view.

We get to know these faces in en­closed spa­ces, mostly, and when Tish and Fonny fall slowly into Fonny’s bed, the di­rec­tor and his fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor and cin­e­matog­ra­pher, James Lax­ton, bathe the ac­tors in ex­quis­ite light and shadow. Theirs is a supremely ten­der ren­dezvous, and Jenk­ins doesn’t squan­der the op- por­tu­nity.

Many of the key scenes in “Beale Street” un­fold in ex­tended takes; else­where, in a style fa­mil­iar to movie­go­ers from Jenk­ins’ pre­vi­ous “Moon­light” and “Medicine for Melan­choly,” the ac­tors speak di­rectly to the cam­era, Ozu “Tokyo Story” style. It’s es­pe­cially strik­ing in the scenes when Tish and Fonny con­verse with a thick pane of glass be­tween them, at the prison.

The story trav­els to Puerto Rico, as Tish’s mother tracks down the flee­ing ac­cuser of her son. But most of “Beale Street” stays within a dreamy, vi­o­lent, cruel, beau­ti­ful vi­sion of 1970s New York. Bald­win’s de­scrip­tions in the novel in­clude pas­sages such as this one, nar­rated by Tish, de­scrib­ing a mo­ment in her lov­ing home with a Ray Charles song on the record player. “I lis­tened to the mu­sic and the sounds from the streets and Daddy’s hand rested lightly on my hair. And ev­ery­thing seemed con­nected — the street sounds, and Ray’s voice and his pi­ano and my Daddy’s hand and sis­ter’s sil­hou­ette and the sound and the light com­ing from the kitchen.”

That’s pure cin­ema. What Bald­win does with words, Jenk­ins does vis­ually. It’s what Blanche DuBois says in “A Street­car Named De­sire”: “I don’t want re­al­ism. I want magic!” In “Beale Street” that magic can be crush­ing, and soul-stir­ring, some­times si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Jenk­ins’ epi­logue, not found in the novel, may go a lit­tle far in its em­brace of the af­fir­ma­tive. But that’s hardly the worst thing you can say about any film, let alone one as lovely as this. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Stephan James and KiKi Layne star in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” adapted from the James Bald­win novel.

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