“Time could not be bought. The only coin time accepted was life.”
Tish, the shy protagonist of James Bladwin’s masterpiece If Beale Street Could Talk, wends her way to this conclusion about halfway through the book, her profound epiphany following a string of declarative, panicked idioms itemizing the perils her boyfriend Fonny faces in prison. “Time,” she reflects. “The word tolled like the bells of a church. “Fonny was doing: time. In six months time, our baby would be here. Somewhere in time, Fonny and I had met.” Tish reads time the way a fortune teller reads cards, spotting Fonny in his cell, Fonny before his arrest and after, in need of a trim and a shave, all over time, not a construct as we believe but a mythic beast with bottomless hunger. White supremacy is the enemy in Baldwin’s text, but time comes a close second.
Being as time is If Beale Street Could Talk‘s secondary antagonist, Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight and Medicine for Melancholy, is the best positioned American filmmaker for adapting it. Jenkins’ films are burdened by arrays of social concerns and human observations about honest portraiture of black American identities, the complicated nature of love, institutional discrimination as America’s oxygen, and violence done to flesh as well as spirit. But beneath these shared themes in his work slithers time: At once, time serves as an obstacle in his movies and a framework.
In Moonlight, time is inexorable. Jenkins’ document of Chiron Harris’ life, from child (Alex Hibbert) to teen (Ashton Sanders) to man (Trevante Rhodes), moves forward, deliberate but unrelenting, dramatizing his lonesome, conflicted upbringing through to lonesome, conflicted adulthood. In Medicine for Melancholy, time is a finite resource, currency spent judiciously, taking place (mostly) over the course of a day in the lives of Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Higgins), who flirt, canoodle, and muse over matters of fidelity while debating personhood and gentrification in San Francisco. In If Beale Street Could Talk, time is a boomerang, or really a yo-yo; Jenkins throws it, gives the string a tug, rolls it up and down and around Tish and Fonny’s world, pre-jail and post-jail, and creates a panorama of what their lives were, are, and could be.
It’s the most ambitious movie he’s made to date, not simply for adapting James Baldwin from page to screen (a daunting prospect even without the success of Moonlight weighing on one’s shoulders) but for adapting If Beale Street Could Talk specifically. It’s a deceptively simple work, a scant 197 pages, written in Baldwin’s agile prose and with a sense of direction that belies its back-and-forth structure. Jenkins holds to that structure from the very start, knowing that, since he cannot reasonably shape the book into cinema without it, he might as well hit the ground running: We see Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), captured overhead in a sustained tracking shot as they stroll through Harlem on their first night spent together as lovers. “You ready for this?” she asks him. “I’ve never been more ready for anything my whole life,” he tells her.
Moments later, in the film’s present day, Tish and Fonny meet in prison and speak through a glass barrier, she on the visitor’s side, he on the prisoner’s. He’s been arrested for rape, even though he couldn’t possibly have done the crime based on geography. But facts be damned. He’s a black man in New York in the 1970s, a crime unto itself (and still a crime 44 years after the novel’s publication) and thus reason enough for a racist white cop to lock him up. It helps not at all that the cop has a prior grudge against Fonny, which is birthed in flashback. A pervert harasses Tish as she shops for tomatoes, Fonny intervenes, and the cop, Bell (Ed Skrein), appears on the scene as if summoned by cruel magic. Fonny is saved by the market’s owner, an Italian woman who vouches for both of them. Bell is warded off, but temporarily.
Temporally, Bell’s already snared Fonny. Such is the effect of If Beale Street Could Talk: Every hopeful breath the film exhales is cut by the burden of knowledge. In Fonny’s bitterest moments as a free man, we know that ultimately he’s not free at all; in the tender, ecstatic moments he and Tish share as soulmates, as one flesh, we know their meant-to-be love can’t evade white supremacy’s corrupting touch. Jenkins, hewing close to Baldwin’s words, portends Fonny’s fate in a flashback where Fonny reunites with his friend Danny (Bryan Tyree Henry) after years apart. Danny, fresh out of prison, eats and drinks his torment; he’s traumatized, haunted, struggling with shame, fear, and anxiety, the joint consequences of America’s policing and prison systems. Henry’s performance is key. As he talks, the camera floats about him, and his eyes go liquid with recollections of his experience, from his arrest to his incarceration, and the abuses heaped on him in both.
Time, again, is an adversary: In time Fonny, like Danny, will unjustly do time. Time mocks both the characters and the audience. One moment, If Beale Street Could Talk is one of 2018’s purest love stories; in others, it’s heartbreaking. No sooner do Fonny and Tish make love for the first time than we’re in Puerto Rico, where Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), pleads with Fonny’s accuser to testify, to speak the truth, and spare Fonny imprisonment. The woman breaks down. Sharon stands dumbstruck and helpless. Hope fizzles, in time.
Not all’s lost. If time can destroy, time can heal, too. The cast of If Beale Street Could Talk, in both mediums, refuse to break from the strain of their circumstances. Fonny’s wrongful sentencing is punishment, but it’s also a call to arms, a challenge to stand in defiance against racial injustice. But Jenkins doesn’t use slim optimism to comfort his audience. He studiously avoids such reassurances, impressing on the viewer the film’s sobering reality. In time, Fonny will be free, but in the time that elapses in If Beale Street Could Talk, he’s doomed.