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.