If Beale Street Could Talk proves Barry Jenkins was anything but a one film wonder.
These are our children and we’ve got to set them free.
“Poetic” is a wildly ineffective word to describe a cinematic work. Instead of being properly descriptive it only hopes to evoke a feeling through allusion. Still, it’s the only word I have to describe Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous, atmospheric works.
I adore Moonlight. So much so that I was worried about seeing If Beale Street Could Talk for worry that its failures might somehow lessen the magic of that previous film (see: Alfredson, Tomas). And for Jenkins to adapt a novel by the late great James Baldwin, a chameleonic author and cultural critic whose main thesis was that black life and discrimination were everchanging and did not fit into easy to understand boxes, is a daunting task. One only need to watch the recent Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro to be intimidated by the attempt to grasp and re-voice what the author was saying.
Thankfully, Moonlight was no flash in the pan, and Jenkins was no one-hit wonder. If Beale Street Could Talk reconfirms the director as a major artist of our era.
Much like its predecessor, Beale Street is hard to describe. The film’s main storyline concerns a young African-American woman named Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) working to exonerate her wrongly accused boyfriend before the birth of their child. That boyfriend, Fonny (Stephen James, Homecoming), is fingered for a rape the logistics and presence of a begrudging police officer cast doubt upon him having committed, but the judicial system’s prejudice against young black men and her inability to keep up with mounting legal fees challenge whether she will be able to secure his release regardless of the truth. But just like Moonlight, Beale Street flourishes in the emotional moments between the story’s main plot points. It’s a film about life’s connective tissue, and the small beats that make the fight against injustice worth fighting.
Tish and Fonny are young. He’s just barely into his twenties, and she’s only nineteen, too young to fully know the uphill battle their love faces in 1970s Harlem when poverty makes it difficult to find an apartment and racism makes it nearly impossible. The film flashes back to their early courting over the film’s duration, detailing their childhood together as friends before one day realizing the depth of their feelings. As Tish says, it’s hard to know how they went one day from children bathing together to adults whose feelings of love suddenly appeared, as though they’d always been there. There was no time to be nervous or embarrassed about their bodies. Suddenly, it just was, as though life had always been preparing them for it.
Despite the film’s bleak subject matter of wrongful imprisonment and the prospect of raising a child in a fatherless home, Beale Street is ultimately optimistic even while acknowledging its hardships for black families. It’s a film about community, and how the downcast face life’s challenges together. For Tish and Fonny that’s a reliance on friends and family. One of the film’s most remarkable scenes of mutual confrontation comes when Tish tells her family about her pregnancy. She tells her mother Sharon (Regina King, American Crime) and sister with hesitation, but can’t bring herself to face her father. It’s by her mother’s guiding hand that the family is gathered together, the expensive alcohol is poured, and the celebratory mood is underway before Joseph (Coleman Domingo) can even consider what they’re celebrating. “We are drinking to new life,” Sharon says, and Joseph confronts Trish, not out of scorn, but out of concern. Is she sure she wants this? Is she sure she can do this? Once those questions are answered, the celebration returns with Joseph beaming “I hope it’s a boy!” There’s every indication the family and the community will help support Tish while Fonny is away.
Fonny’s mother is considerably less accommodating when her family joins the party. His father can’t wait to get drunk and celebrate with Joseph, but she berates Tish for her sinfulness, seeming to forget that the very baby she’s condemning is her own grandchild. There’s much to be interpreted about the self-righteous Mrs. Hunt and her daughters and their straightened hair, contrasted with the natural looks of Tish’s family and their accepting, communal nature. The women of the Hunt family are outsiders by way of both fashion and attitude, working from a position of self-ascribed superiority instead of proud black community. The film’s viewpoint is unquestionably one about the innate beauty of blackness, and the Hunt women aren’t a part of it. They wouldn’t deign to be, and the ensuing party breakdown casts a sharp divide between the two viewpoints.
Production designer Mark Friedberg and costume designer Caroline Eselin’s work is striking. Moonlight’s pastel color palette has been replaced with a gorgeous array of deep blues, vibrant greens, and especially striking splashes of yellow that all highlight the actors’ skin tones. That black is beautiful isn’t merely the film’s thesis. Jenkins and his team have worked it into the physical look of the film, and the results are astounding.
Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton make heavy use of Beale Street’s characters looking straight into the camera. It’s a cinematic technique with historically mixed results. For every impressive The Silence of the Lambs there’s a project where it destroys a film’s magic: The actors no longer look like characters living life, but simply staring into a camera. Beale Street clears easily that hurdle. Layne, James, and the other actors look beyond the camera and into the soul of the viewer, a piercing effect that, mixed with ample voiceover, further invites the viewer into Tish and Fonny’s world. It’s a world Jenkins and his crew have created through the production design, Laxton’s swirling cinematography and the jazzy soundtrack, but it feels like an effortless transportation back to 1970s Harlem.
Beale Street is a triumph of ensemble acting with impressive small performances from the entire cast, but Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) deserve extra attention. King is impressively powerful and maternal in her role. In scenes like the aforementioned guiding of the pregnancy announcement and Sharon’s later trip to Puerto Rico to find the woman who accused Fonny of raping her before disappearing, King portrays motherhood as a powerful balance between knowing when to fight and knowing when to comfort.
Brian Tyree Henry only appears in the film for a mere fifteen minutes, but the film momentarily reconfigures to revolve around him during that span. Henry’s Daniel Carty is an old childhood friend of Fonny’s and the pair reunite by happenstance on the streets of Harlem. Fonny invites him up to meet Tish, and the pair talk about women and old times while Tish preps a dinner menu. When she leaves the apartment, however, Carty’s stories take a darker turn as he reveals his recent parole from prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The horror in Henry’s voice and bloodshot eyes as the camera pans across the table between the two men as they talk for one extended take. The previously gregarious Carty’s voice shrinks in fear as he relates the horrors of prison and the impossibility of fighting injustice in hushed tones. Carty disappears from the film after Tish returns and the trio eat dinner, but Henry’s single scene lingers over the remainder of the film as a harsh reminder of just what Tish, Frank, and the Rivers family are fighting to rescue Fonny from.
Jenkins, and by extension Baldwin, aren’t starry-eyed dreamers. They know the fight that African-Americans face. The hopefulness of the film isn’t ignorant to a world of suffering. The flashbacks are undercut by Tish’s visits to see Fonny in prison, the proud man from her memories suddenly recast behind a progressively dirtier and grittier glass visitation room divide as Fonny struggles to find the will to fight. This isn’t a fairytale where love conquers all. Instead, the film argues that love and dreams are what power the fight against injustice in its darkest moments. The film doesn’t take place on Beale Street in Memphis, but rather references that the street’s music lives in the hearts and souls of every African-American who tap out its various beats of joy and blues in their everyday lives.
One of the film’s best sequences shows people like Fonny and Tish attempting to make a life despite the difficulties of their circumstances. In flashback, we see Fonny attempting to convince Tish that a converted warehouse could actually be the right place for them to build a life together. It doesn’t yet have walls, and it might not ever have toilets in the individual units, but it is affordable. Their landlord Levy (Dave Franco, The Disaster Artist), himself often encountering Jewish discrimination, just wants to build a place where other downtrodden people can afford to make a life together. “You just can’t see it yet,” Fonny tells Tish, and he and Levy proceed to pantomime moving a refrigerator and stove into their future apartment. It may not have much, but it has lots of light and lots of love. “You trusted love this far,” Sharon’s voice echoes in the viewer’s memory. “Trust it all the way.”