If Beale Street Could Talk, the 1974 James Baldwin novel, begins with a bittersweet announcement of new life. “Alonzo, we’re going to have a baby,” Clementine “Tish” Rivers tells her fiancé from across the cold glass of a New York City jail’s visitation room. Tish narrates the story, so the reflection that follows is in her voice. “I looked at him. I know I smiled,” she says. “His face looked as though it were plunging into water. I couldn’t touch him. I wanted so to touch him.” For much of the novel, their hands can’t cross the glacial barrier. But Tish and her beloved nonetheless find a way to remain entwined.
The new Barry Jenkins–directed film adaptation gently renders Baldwin’s expansive, embattled vision of black love. As in the novel, the story follows the 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) as she navigates life following the 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt’s (Stephan James) incarceration on false rape charges. Even as they face entrenched discrimination and mounting legal hurdles, the love between the two never wavers. It is singular in its expression, but it doesn’t stand alone. A constellation of love surrounds them.
Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk is a gorgeous, enveloping film—and one of its most poignant triumphs is how vividly it captures the depth and complication of intimacy among its black characters. Tish and Fonny are its nucleus, but the film pays rare, urgent attention to the contours of familial love, too. Tish’s struggle to free Fonny from the clutches of the racist criminal-justice system is not one the young woman endures on her own. Her mother, Sharon (Regina King), reassures her in their shared domestic space, and fights for Tish outside the bounds of their home. Her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), takes on the duty of securing alternative revenue streams to fund Fonny’s legal assistance and support the pair’s unborn child. Her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), offers Tish solace and—when necessary—riposte.