In many ways, it seems as though James Baldwin was 40 years ahead of his time when he wrote “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The novel touches on many issues that today’s society is plagued with: sexual assault, the objectification of black women, police brutality, prison rights; the contemporary implications of the novel are really quite startling. So it seems quite fitting that, in 2018, director Barry Jenkins would choose to turn Baldwin’s book into a startlingly emotional film.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” follows Tish and Fonny, two African Americans living in 1970s Harlem, desperately in love. Though the couple have known each other since childhood, their love has grown and matured and, as they enter into their 20s, they become entwined in a deep and dedicated romance. Their love appears unbreakable, despite pressure from their families and the society around them.
All comes crashing down, however, when Fonny is arrested for rape by a cop with a personal vendetta against him. Tish and her family dedicate themselves to getting Fonny released from jail, to free him from the accusations of this woman whom he has never met and the cop who hates him. All only becomes more complicated when Tish discovers she is pregnant with Fonny’s child.
When reading “If Beale Street Could Talk,” it is difficult to imagine how a film adaptation would play out. The novel, while emotionally striking, seemed to lack the action and dramatic progression that a film requires. Jenkins, however, saw something that most readers missed. His adaptation brings more to the novel than even Baldwin could have expected.
Jenkins’ adaptation brings a greater sense of clarity to the original work. The flashbacks which define the novel’s plot flow more harmoniously on the big screen. Baldwin’s incredible use of dialogue and monologue becomes even more profound on screen, performed by deeply talented actors who bring raw emotion to the interactions. Under Jenkins’ hand, “If Beale Street Could Talk” transforms into one of the most compelling movies to ever exist, proving his cinematic mastery that was hinted at in 2016’s “Moonlight.”
While every single actor in the cast is talented, Emily Rios allows the character of Victoria Rogers to shine in a way that Baldwin’s novel did not. Rogers, the woman who has labeled Fonny as her rapist, is not understood by the novel’s narrator, Tish. In the film, Rogers is given more space, and audiences can see how damaged this woman has become in the aftermath of her own tragedy.
Clearly inspired by the #MeToo movement, Rios gives Rogers a strong yet aching voice, speaking on behalf of all women who have been told that they are wrong or even cruel when they attempt to identify the man who has ruined them, when they are forced to remember the most painful day of their lives. Her shocking cries carry with the audience, reminding them that she, like Tish, is simply a woman grasping for justice.
Most powerful of all, though, are the devastating images of the violent and discriminatory acts committed against black bodies since the end of the nineteenth century scattered throughout the film. These startling images, reaching across decades, serve as a powerful reminder that police brutality is certainly nothing new to America. A rigged justice system has always been central to systematic racism. Ending on these images brings the film full circle, etching visions of discrimination deep into our minds and urging us to keep moving forward.