Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephen James, Colman Domingo, Tayonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King
Director: Barry Jankins
Writer: Barry Jenkins
One of the most extraordinary things about If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is how specific its story is to the experience of these characters and yet how universal the emotions and themes that it conjures feel. Like in Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight, which found such aching beauty in the tormented life of a gay, African-American man and his harsh upbringing in the rundown, drug-infested slums of Florida, Beale Street taps into the sensuous depth of feeling and severe social-political realities of its story to craft a profoundly poetic work of cinema. This is a story about a young man who is accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit and of his bride-to-be in her desperate attempt to clear his name, but the film is also so much more. It is both a love story and a coming of age story, a striking portrait of the realities of being black in America and a song of light and colour that transcends both time and space. Through intimate, lovingly composed camerawork, the generous democratisation of its time-jumping story across different perspectives and the depiction of such racially-charged themes as housing discrimination, police bigotry and unjust incarceration, what Jenkins has created is a magnificent and moving picture that, above, all is about love, loss, grace and faith.
Literally speaking, Beale Street is in Memphis, Tennessee, and is remembered as the place where such legendary black musicians as W.C. Handy, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters invented the blues. According to the Baldwin quote that opens the film however Beale Street is, to him, the street in New Orleans where his father, Louis Armstrong and jazz were all born. “Every black person born in America” he says, “was born on Beale Street”. Beale Street refers to any street in the USA, “whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or Harlem, New York,” where African-American people lived and died, loved and lost and built enduring communities where they could be free, happy and black. The same opening quotation also talks about “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy”. Thus the film, just like the novel its based on, endeavours to tell a story set mainly in Harlem, just one of the countless hidden stories that occurred within the Beale Street of 1970s New York. The story is fictional and yet it speaks to truths that Baldwin, Jenkins and the other residents of Beale Street have lived and learned over the course of their own lives. It is a story rooted in its time and place yet seems to be about the world entire, such is the legacy of Beale Street.
This particular story is about 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her sweetheart Fonny (Stephen James), a boy she’s known since they were kids together, who is behind bars and awaiting trial on the charge of rape, a crime which we’ll soon learn he could not have committed. Tish is pregnant and determined to get her husband-to-be home before the baby is born, but that prospect grows all the more unlikely when Fonny’s accuser, a Puerto Rican woman who picked him out of a line up, flees the country. Without her, the case is reduced to Fonny’s word against that of Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), the cop who claims to have seen him fleeing the scene and whom we learn harbours a grudge for the young man. We don’t learn all of this straight away though because the film adopts a non-linear approach to the story and starts off in the middle with Tish visiting Fonny in jail to share the special news with him (“I hope that nobody ever has to look at anybody they love through glass” she muses in voiceover). We then follow her home where she breaks the same news to her family. Her parents Sharon (Regina King, fantastic every second) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Tayonah Parris) are worried about her future but promise to support her no matter what. The same cannot be said for Fonny’s family whose God-fearing mother Alice (Aunjanue Ellis) condemns Tish for conceiving a child out of wedlock.
While the film jumps back and forth in time and switches perspectives, the focus throughout remains on the love between Tish and Fonny. As we follow Tish we travel back in time with her to a simpler and happier stage when she and Fonny were childhood friends discovering something that hadn’t been there before (or maybe it had been, they just hadn’t seen it). When the two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, there is a certain radiance that engulfs them. The whole world feels warmer and softer when they’re together and we can feel it as well in the bright colours exuding their warm glow and the intimate ways in which Jenkins’ frames the couple, favouring close-ups that lock squarely onto their faces as if the film were trying to break the fourth wall. Sometimes the film goes even deeper than that, focusing on their eyes and mouths with everything else out of focus. There is a love scene that the two share which feels far more tender and dreamy than it does voyeuristic because it was discreetly and lovingly captured by a director who loves people and knows how to photograph their beauty. The love between Tish and Fonny isn’t lustful but spiritual; it’s as if when one stares into the eyes of the other as they make love, they can see right into their very soul.
The reality of the world they live in however means that they cannot simply live their lives as two souls in love. Whether it’s moving into a cheap apartment in a converted warehouse because most New York landlords are unwilling to rent a place to a black couple or happening to get on the wrong side of a racist cop in a chance encounter, the world will not abide the purity and grace they share as a black couple. When Fonny is arrested, it’s a given that the justice system is ready to fail him at every turn. In their effort to clear Fonny’s name the family turns to a lawyer they cannot afford and even use what little money they can raise to send Sharon to Puerto Rico, hoping against hope that she might track down the absconded woman who accused Fonny of this crime and persuade her to drop the charge. The brutalities of the prison life that people like Fonny are subjected to are also made clear to us, not through the explicit and graphic depiction you might expect in an episode of Oz, but through a sombre monologue delivered by Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), a friend of Fonny’s who spent a year inside after being convicted on a similarly trumped-up charge. Beale Street could very easily have been a bleak film; the story it tells is furious and tragic and its ending is at best ambiguous. Jenkins however finds hope and beauty wherever he can and the film he has made is a deeply rich and emotionally resonant one.