Every single frame of If Beale Street Could Talk – a skill perfected by Barry Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton in 2016 feature Moonlight – flows with vulnerability. And like its predecessor, the film delights in Black love, signified in the camera’s tender linger on the characters’ gazes (recurrently through the camera), their kisses, their interlocked hands. The film is littered with reminders that this is about love; love between friends, love between families, love between lovers.
In this haunting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, this love, the central beating heart of the film, is undercut with pain. The gauzy warmth of the film’s colour palette is routinely interrupted by stark archival photographs of historical injustices towards Black Americans. The intricate sound design of Beale Street, soaked in jazz and the symphony of the Harlem streets, is also laced with piano and sad strings, with the distant threatening howl of police sirens. Baldwin’s prose is honoured and augmented with the visual achievements in the film, and as much is said in the unspoken as there is in the spoken. Characters are laconic. Sometimes, their bodies can articulate everything they can’t say about the society they live in, whether it’s in the language expressed through them or the brutalities inflicted upon them.
Beale Street is about two lovers, Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne), who have known each other since they were children. Their love is idealised, improbable if not impossible, but we are emotionally invested, whether we want to be or otherwise. Fonny is wrongly accused of rape. Tish, who is only nineteen, is going to have their child. Incarceration threatens to fragment a family, all for the colour of their skin. Layne’s debut performance is especially moving here; in this hostile, racist society, this frightened girl is forced to grow up faster than she can. The nonlinear structure of the film means that its flashbacks of the couple’s travelling, lovemaking, homemaking, and dreaming are bittersweet – after all, we know that Fonny and Tish will soon be forced to conduct a relationship “through glass”.
Jenkins favours a shallow focus, and in the warm light and languorous film style, I could make out every line and pore on the faces he presents to incredible effect. I was particularly struck by Regina King as Tish’s mother, Sharon, whose affectionate gaze and quiet agony chilled me. Contrasting this with Naomie Harris’ seminal performance as the protagonist’s mother in Moonlight – despite how different the two characters are – showed how precisely Jenkins crafts the psychology of mothers and familial relationships for the screen. In a tense early scene wherein the families of Fonny and Tish collide, the immediate chemistry, love, and solidarity amongst Tish and her family tasted concrete and profoundly authentic.
My favourite scene, however, occurs between Fonny and an old friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), the latter shot in prolonged profile, his eyes glittering as he speaks of his experiences with the law, Fonny unknowingly looking back at what may await him. The screenplay, the performances, and the cinematography coalesce to carve a picture of the real human cost of bigotry.
Ultimately, behind its soft, romantic exterior and marketing, Beale Street possesses a hardcore: how different is the reality for Black Americans from this nightmarish vision of unbridled societal racism?