If Beale Street Could Talk
A lyrical blend of tenderness and tragedy, Barry Jenkins screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk envelopes the viewer within its finely measured cadence. This deliberate pacing has the dual effect of distancing the viewer from the events unfolding (putting us firmly in the place of observer) as well as pushing us to analyse these events: their results and their genesis. But to think of Beale Street in purely analytical terms would be to deny its power; Jenkins’ film is first and foremost an immersive work of beauteous cine-poetry.
A love story that plays out in the streets and neighbourhoods of 1970s New York City, Beale Street traces the arc of young couple Trish and Fonny, whose families have been neighbours since childhood. Where a typical Hollywood picture might have the couple encounter and overcome struggles within their relationship, Beale Street instead contextualises their story in the reality of living as a black person in United States. Rather than, say, one partner losing a job, Trish and Fonny are refused apartments by a string of ‘closet’ racist landlords (as Māori this kind of thing is not unfamiliar and reminded me of Merata Mita’s similar story of having to lie to landlords to be able to house her family, as told in her son Heperi Mita’s 2018 documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen). Fonny is arrested and jailed for a crime of which he is innocent, and, where in another film Fonny’s case might be taken by brilliant lawyer and victory gained, or he might escape to freedom in defiance of the man, he is instead processed through an uncaring system that is consistently geared against him, and his partner and family are forced to bend the law and risk their own livelihoods just to be able to ineffectually flail towards a ‘justice’ that is never within reach. This may seem grim, but Baldwin’s narrative has as many moments of joy as it does moments of poignant bleakness. Jenkins handles this balance by utilising intertwining timelines: one that follows Trish and Fonny’s burgeoning relationship and a later one that follows the families’ efforts to prove Fonny’s innocence.
KiKi Layne and Stephan James are strong and engaging co-leads as Trish and Fonny but it is the support players who regularly stand out. In particular Regina King as Trish’s resolutely supportive mother Sharon and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry who steals the scene of the movie as an old school friend (Daniel) that Fonny happens upon in the street and invites home.
Even more than the notable writing and performances, it is Jenkins and collaborators’ (cinematographer James Laxton, costume designer Caroline Eselin, composer Nicholas Britell, &c.) impressive application of the film’s formal elements that consistently captivates. As with the filmmakers’ previous efforts in 2016’s Moonlight, the framing, lighting, and colour—then, a myriad of purple, blue, and green hues; now, a symbolically shifting palette of rich yellows, blues, and greens*—are masterfully put together. There was a simple long-held shot in the aforementioned Brian Tyree Henry scene involving a close up on the actor’s face with a spot of light glowing softly through the bottom of his upper lip that took my breath away with its pure visual artistry. A Tarkovskian moment of transcendence, preceding a darkening of the narrative, which imprinted on the mind like the remnants of objects lit momentarily by a camera’s flash. In this visual treatment, in Britell’s score and Odin Benitez’s sound design, and also directly via the dialogue and narration, Jenkin’s Beale Street lovingly reflects the lyricism of Baldwin’s prose. It may not be a neatly tied up, feel-good story but it is a rich study of love—romantic and familial—that unflinchingly explores a context of everyday oppression with nuance and grace.
*Read Doug Dillaman’s excellent analysis of Jenkins’ thematic use of colour in Beale Street here.
Rating: M Suitable for mature audiences 16 years and over. NOTE: Violence, offensive language & sex scenes.