Harlem Nights

Barry Jenkins is back. The writer-director of the Oscar-winning Moonlightfollows that triumph with this elegant adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. While Baldwin’s unfinished novel Remember This Housewas central to Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary, his work has rarely been put on film, with the exception of Robert Guédiguian’s 1998 film Where The Heart Is, which also took on If Beale Street…So it’s heartening to see Jenkins’ film, an affectionate nod towards such a vital author. 

Set in 1970s Harlem, the story follows two young African-American lovers, 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), who are building a life together when they are knocked sideways. Whilst Tish is revealed to be pregnant, Fonny is put in prison, accused of raping a woman, despite a solid alibi that put him elsewhere on the night of the crime. 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

Often when literary adaptations take place, the author’s voice can get somewhat diluted, but Jenkins takes great care to ensure we hear Baldwin’s prose. Channeled through voiceover, Jenkins is clearly aware of the potency of Baldwin’s words spoken intact. It’s just one of the pleasures of a film that, like Moonlight, treats the visuals and sound design with equal loving care. The emotional accumulative effect is also deeply apparent as the story unfolds. 

While Layne and James are credible lovers with a tender chemistry between them, they’re ably supported to several older actors – notably Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s mother and father, Sharon and Joe. Also cutting deep, even in a small role, is Dave Franco as the kindly and romantic Jewish landlord who refuses to discriminate against the colour of their skin unlike so many others.

KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny star in Barry Jenkins’ IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Jenkins, who only marks his third film as director with If Beale Street…, is clearly a gifted filmmaker – sensitive, sensual and emotionally engaged. There’s a wistful dreamlike quality to this movie, though like Moonlightit’s distinctly based in the real world. There’s humanity and horror here in equal measure, perfectly packaged into a complex and defiant drama about the healing power of love. 

If Beale Street Could Talk opens on 8 February. For more details, click here.

James Mottram

1. Stills from
If Beale Street Could Talk.