In his first film since the culture-shaking, Oscar-winning Moonlight, writer-director Barry Jenkins has not so much adapted James Baldwin's 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, as expanded it, in ways only the most accomplished filmmakers can achieve. Baldwin's central story, dialogue and time-jumping narrative structure are all in place, but so, too, is a sumptuous visual style that serves to deepen the novelist's themes of racial injustice and the powerful countering force of love.
Jenkins opens on Tish (KiKi Layne), age 19, and Fonny (Stephan James), 22, walking hand in hand through Central Park in the early 1970s. The two played together as children, but on this day -- in this moment -- they're discovering that they've fallen in love. In the first of the film's magnificent close-ups, shot by Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton, Fonny stops and looks at her, his eyes brimming with competing emotions -- desire, surprise, love.
He is, but the very next scene finds Tish, months later, visiting Fonny in jail. Fonny has been arrested in connection with the rape of a Puerto Rican immigrant (Emily Rios) in the East Village. He has an alibi, but that doesn't count for much when a young black man like Fonny has made an enemy of a white policeman (Ed Skrein).
One of the beautiful things about Jenkins' brilliantly acted film is the artful economy with which Tish and Fonny and all who love them are given the time and space to reveal their fears and hurts. There's glory in the film's rich color palette, and in a love scene for the ages: The sound of the rain, intensifying as Tish and Fonny draw closer together, is unforgettable -- this is pure cinema.