Tish and Fonny are young and in love, and there are parts of “If Beale Street Could Talk” where writer-director Barry Jenkins renders that love beautifully, as if it was the simplest thing in the world.
But Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are black and living in 20th century America, so there’s nothing simple about their relationship — or how they and their families are treated by society — in this adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel that captures the poetry and urgency of Baldwin’s writing.
Fonny and Tish have known each other since childhood, but as young adults that bond of friendship has grown into something more. They are recently engaged, and Tish has just learned that she is carrying Fonny’s child. This news is welcomed by Tish’s parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), but less so by Fonny’s rigidly Christian mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis). A gathering of the two families moves swiftly from comedy to high drama, and an ultimatum from Sharon that the baby is a gift from God, no matter what Mrs. Hunt thinks of how it was conceived.
As Fonny and Tish seek a place to call home, they encounter the polite racism of landlords who suddenly announce the apartment listed in the classifieds has already been rented. But then a less-subtle form of racism surfaces, when a racist cop (Ed Skrein) accuses Fonny of a rape that he did not commit.
While Fonny sits in a cell awaiting trial, Tish marshals every resource to find a lawyer to clear Fonny of the crime. Sharon also takes action, and in one heartbreaking scene confronts the rape victim to see if she will recant her testimony.
Jenkins, fresh off the artistic wonder of “Moonlight,” captures with radiant images the feel of 1970s Harlem, and the hopes and fears of the African-American families making their lives there. He puts Baldwin’s soaring words into his characters’ mouths, where they feel as natural as everyday conversation.
Two behind-the-scenes players, both collaborators on “Moonlight,” add to Jenkins’ emotionally resonant telling of this story. One is cinematographer James Laxton, who creates luminous images of young lovers. The other is Nicholas Britell, whose jazz-infused score adds depth to the Harlem setting.
The ensemble cast, which includes Teyonah Parris as Tish’s militant sister and Bryan Tyree Henry as a recently paroled friend of Fonny, is strong from top to bottom. The standout, though, is King, who displays a wealth of emotions — joy, despair, resolution and a fierce maternal protectiveness — with just the smallest gestures. Among the many voices in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” King’s makes itself felt whether shouting or whispering.
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
Opened Dec. 14 in select markets; opens Friday, January 4, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Century 16 (South Salt Lake). Rated R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 119 minutes.