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Barry Jenkins directs spot-on adaptation of Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Kam Williams
Barry Jenkins directs spot-on adaptation of Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
Kiki Layne and Stephan James star in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Photo: courtesy Annapurna Pictures

In 1974, James Baldwin published “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a love story, set in Harlem, about a beleaguered black couple’s pursuit of the elusive American Dream. Many critics consider the heartrending novel Baldwin’s best work, perhaps because of the way in which it humanizes an array of African American characters ordinarily marginalized and relegated to the shadows of society.

Now, Barry Jenkins, director of 2017’s Oscar-winning Best Picture “Moonlight,” has brought a faithful adaptation of the revered classic to the big screen. The poignant coming-of-age tale co-stars Kiki Layne as 19-year-old Tish Rivers and Stephan James as her 23-year-old fiancé, Fonny Hunt.

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At the point of departure, the star-crossed lovers are already behind the proverbial eight-ball. Narrator Tish informs us that her beau, an aspiring sculptor, has recently been arrested for rape. Then, during a jailhouse visit, she lets him know through the frustrating glass partition that he’s going to be a father.

Fonny takes the news of the pregnancy in stride, which is more than can be said for his family, especially his disapproving mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Dominique Thorn and Ebony Obsidian). Fortunately, Tish’s feisty mom, Sharon (Regina King), is up to the challenge of getting everybody to stop pointing fingers self-righteously in favor of focusing on the blessing of a baby that’s coming.

Meanwhile, Fonny’s impending trial looms large. For, despite an airtight alibi, he was ostensibly framed by a racist cop (Ed Skrein) capable of cavalierly framing a black man for a crime he didn’t commit.

Hope for justice rests with getting the alleged rape victim (Emily Rios), who fingered Fonny at the direction of Officer Bell, to tell the truth. But she’s moved to Puerto Rico, making the prospect of her recanting in court unlikely, unless Sharon is willing to go to extraordinary lengths in quest of exoneration.

All of the above unfolds in fascinating fashion against a variety of visually captivating backdrops. Kudos to Jenkins for crafting another compelling inner-city saga, and especially for coaxing a career performance out of King, a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

at a glance

  • “If Beale Street Could Talk” Excellent (4 stars)
  • Rated: R for profanity and sexuality
  • Running time: 117 minutes
  • Production Studio: Plan B Entertainment / Annapurna Pictures / PASTEL
  • Studio: Annapurna Pictures

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