Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
In 2005 my grandmother succumbed to bowel cancer in our home and I could hear her dying cries. I was laid up at the time following corrective knee surgery. That same summer my sister’s partner was murdered. And I got my heart broken, maybe the hardest it ever broke. The weight of these things ought to have marked 2005 out as a black year. The worst. And yet I also carry in me memories of that summer as a summer of intense personal awakening and freedom. The sun shone brighter. The good times fizzed from sickly watered down JD and cokes and the clubs smelled like cigarettes and I danced like crazy (when I could). My sense-memory for that year is the feeling of sitting in a passenger seat with the window down and the car going fast and the wind battering at your hair (mine was long back then).
What has all this to do with If Beale Street Could Talk? The point is that good times and bad times often coalesce, they mix, and they’re often so tightly interwoven that they are inseparable from one another. And as hard as the hard times are, we will always (for self-preservation’s sake) defer to the sweet stuff.
I can’t speak on behalf of the black experience in America. To try to do so would be arrogant, if not downright rude. I’m a 35 year-old white guy slowly getting fat in rural England. But between the erudite prose of the great James Baldwin and the near-religious experience of the cinema of Barry Jenkins, I feel as though I can come close (or closer) to appreciating said experience.
The extraordinary KiKi Layne narrates the film as her character Tish Rivers. The film flits between two momentous times in her life, separated by mere months. In the recent past she tells us – and Jenkins shows us – how her lifelong friendship with Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) evolved into an all-encompassing love. In these sequences Jenkins paints a portrait of switched-on physical attraction so palpable that sitting in the cinema I could feel the breath of the actors, smell the sweat on their foreheads, sense the prickle of the negative space between them. Fonny and Tish’s first night together plays out almost entirely without words, but they are always communicating, with eyes seeking out permissions.
Cut to a few months later and it’s another story being told. Tish is pregnant by Fonny (and she is overjoyed that she is), but Fonny is being held in prison accused of a rape he did not commit. The families are at each other’s throats like Capulets and Montagues, and the system seems hell-bent on denying Fonny a fair shake. Tish encounters numerous roadblocks in her quest to free her beloved, while her ability to look after a child (being poor and all of nineteen years old) is repeatedly called into question.
In a very real sense If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the most ecstatic expressions of romance to have arrived in our cinemas in recent years. And Jenkins is so generous in his portrayal. His actors are phenomenal, but every aspect of the craft echoes their rapture. The lighting is delicately golden, the patterned costuming is frankly exquisite (almost to the point of distraction), the production design always deliberate. The placement of colour in his frames is always so giving, from the red pop of the umbrella Fonny holds over Tish’s hair when they’re walking in the rain, to the bright blue smudge on the telephone receivers when the two are forced to communicate with a pane of murky glass between them. In one rooftop scene, the sky around them is smeared in gasoline rainbows. If Beale Street Could Talk is the best looking film of the year.
And then there is the other side of the movie. Not just the narrative hardships and heartaches, but the bristling undercurrent of a wider injustice that marks the political charge of Baldwin’s work. If Beale Street Could Talk reaches with outstretched fingers, connecting to the indignation of Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which made the case for the American prison industry being the latest tool of black slavery. With the fixes in the system itemised in Fonny’s case, Beale Street becomes a damning expression of a rigged game.
But it doesn’t suffocate you with it. All that hurt, all that fury, its intermingled with the love and the burning of desire, like interlocking hands; the fingers of each side form a lattice and the whole locks together. Jenkins finds balance. He finds grace.
Only once does he nearly lose it. When Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) takes a trip down to Puerto Rico in search of a possible out for Fonny, Beale Street teeters on the histrionic, and by breaking from those rain-washed New York neighbourhoods, it feels as though Jenkins has temporarily burst the perfect bubble of his film. Regina King is great – her Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress is justified, and honestly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the recognition deserved here – but the scenes jar, as though the movie has turned the wrong corner and strayed unwittingly from the path.
It doesn’t hurt the film, though. Jenkins course corrects, cutting back to Fonny when he was free and sculpting, moving around his work in a swirl of smoke. Jenkins’ whole film is a swirl. As with Moonlight he captures how expressive people are when they aren’t saying anything (he is the new master of the direct-to-camera eye line). Here though, he also takes time to showcase how captivating he can make scenes of talking. An early family gathering is as funny as it is fierce, while guest star Brian Tyree Henry pops up in the middle of the picture as an old friend of Fonny’s and the two hash it out in what might be the film’s single greatest scene.
A great scene in a jigsaw of great scenes. Beale Street is a humanistic song for the power of love and a gasp of outrage at the pervasiveness of hate. It understands that these things are intermingled everyday and that this is the beauty and tragedy of life and the human condition as we have made it ourselves. If that sounds a little trite, I can only apologise that I don’t have the better words. James Baldwin did, and does. And Barry Jenkins has transformed them for us. If my opening paragraph seemed like an overshare, its only inspired by the sense of sharing in Jenkins’ film. See it in the cinema. See it now.