There's a reason why the conspicuously picky James Baldwin estate trusted writer-director Barry Jenkins to adapt Baldwin's 1974 novel "If Beale Street Could Talk." It wasn't that Jenkins won an Oscar for co-writing Best Picture "Moonlight" -- that hadn't happened yet. The Baldwin estate looked at Jenkins' work to date and, most importantly, his screenplay for "Beale Street," which richly cultivates a novelistic tone and preserves Baldwin's voice in narration and dialogue.
The resulting film carries not only a literary heft but an almost mythic resonance in telling the story of two true young lovers and the injustice that threatens their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne in an astonishing feature-film debut) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James of "Race" and TV's "Homecoming") make a couple that, while not idealized, proves something close to ideal. Railroaded by a racist cop and misidentified by a distraught victim (Emily Rios), Fonny languishes in jail on a false rape charge. From behind thick glass, he learns from Tish that he is about to become a father.
What follows unfolds in the present but also slips back into the past, to happier days for Tish and Fonny. On the one hand, there's a decidedly episodic quality about "If Beale Street Could Talk," which unfolds scene after memorable scene: Tish breaking the news to her mother Sharon (Regina King), who in turn makes the announcement to Tish's father, Joseph (Coleman Domingo), and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris); Fonny's father Frank (Michael Beach) and judgmental holy roller mother (Aunjanue Ellis) at odds with each other and Tish's family over the same news; Joseph and Frank commiserating over a drink; Tish and Fonny sharing the pain of Fonny's parolee friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), and so on.
On the other hand, Jenkins' film has a dreamy quality that audiences can remember not just for these beautiful, individual gems but as a complete and fully realized experience. It's a film of intimacy, with its truly extraordinary performances allowed by Jenkins to breathe. It's also a film of grandeur, a lushly cinematic romance under a sociopolitical cloud (Jenkins took inspiration from Wong Kar-Wai's similarly lush "In the Mood for Love"). Nicholas Britell's lovely, dark score contributes mightily to the film's moods, as do the cinematography of James Laxton, and the production and costume designs of Mark Friedberg and Caroline Eselin, respectively.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, "If Beale Street Could Talk" feels present and timely, not merely some leftover of the civil-rights era. In any case, it would be incredibly powerful as a dramatization of the injustices that can strike black citizens at any time and the ruinousness of prison on the male psyche, among other socially conscious themes. While it speaks explicitly to the black American experience, Baldwin's story of a couple under duress, and a family at a crossroads of crisis and celebration, remains a universal one, bursting with vivid characters and deeply felt performances (King being a particular standout as a fiercely protective mother). In Jenkins' sure hands, Baldwin's novel becomes an exquisite, impeccable, indelible piece of cinema of the ages.