If Barry Jenkins is looking for something James Baldwin-like to adapt Jenkins should go back and look at Moonlight and know that Baldwin would be happy with that filmic vision rather than the steady technical brilliance of If Beale Street Could Talk. Baldwin would have told Jenkins not to get caught up in duplicating the Baldwin essence at the expense of the Jenkins voice.
A great adaptation must adapt to the director’s poetic soul if it is to seem dramatically real. If Beale Street Could Talk it would tell Jenkins not to go too far down the road without a comfortable house of his own to live in and visit.
Jenkins never quite gets the male characters reality. There is too much posing, talking, withdrawing, not enough self reflecting anger or wounded experience, not enough scarring vision necessary to make art or an artist or even to feel the pathos of aspirations cut short by an unfair incarceration. Stephan James as Fonny never gets to elevate his pain and hurt into the great artistic statement he aspires to because he is constantly looking outside for salvation instead of seeking the revelation within.
Any greatness of If Beale Street Could Talk derives from the two female characters. KiKi Layne as Trish manages to elevate her innocence, the experience of pregnancy, into a growing awareness on the cruelty of the human universe and a mission statement that allows for optimism, kindness and a wise rebuttal. Regina King as Trish’s mother gives a performance that shows how she managed to forcefully and independently rise above the weaker male examples and transplant that into her daughter.
All photos courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.