How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?
How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?
“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.
If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.
Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. He films his lovers and their environs from far away and in extreme close-ups, fluidly and patiently, with great respect for his audience, his characters, and the places they inhabit. Cinematographer James Laxton frames and lights everything with the greatest of care, allowing the audience to absorb and breathe in all of the details both in your face and subtly presented. Take for instance a panning shot of the old decorative tin ceiling of Fonny’s low-rent basement apartment on Bank Street…a typical element that gets beautifully restored during gentrification generations later. Jenkins seems to be reminding us that, yes, people once suffered here, but they also loved here.
Then there is Nicholas Britell’s unfathomably deep and moody musical score. The “Eros” theme is positively pulsing with life and passion as it accentuates the most intimate scenes, while a brooding and elemental bass riff of that same theme pounds with throat-choking pain during the film’s darkest moments. Take for instance Fonny’s troubled but likable friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) revealing the worst part of being in jail…the fear. Or the incident at a neighborhood Italian market where Fonny and Tish first encounter the racist cop who would later bring Fonny in for the crime he didn’t commit. The music puts you right there, inside the characters’ beating and quickening hearts.
There are sensational elements that lesser filmmakers would’ve focused on (the arrest, the violence of jail) but that Jenkins keeps subtle and brooding in the background. Emotions (and above all, love) are presented lushly. Meanwhile, a bruise beneath Fonny’s eye and a cut on his lip (and Tish’s wordless response to seeing him like this through her expressive eyes and face) are all we ever see or need to know about the horrors and violence Fonny encounters behind bars.
Fonny gets eaten by the system designed to railroad him, and because he ultimately takes a plea, we assume one day he’ll be spit out. But If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t about that, it’s about the love that can keep a person alive even when that happens to him. In the final scene, his young son is visiting him in jail and writes on a piece of paper the date his mother told him his father will be released. I so desperately wanted to see that date…wanted to know what (likely sad and faraway) date he would finally be released. But Jenkins shows judicious restraint. Because the date doesn’t matter. A single day is one day too many for an innocent man like Fonny to be in jail. And it makes you wonder, will his son, like so many African-American sons, ever know anything other than a father in jail? And you begin to think about those men incarcerated knowing that most (whether innocent or not) aren’t as lucky as Fonny to have the love of someone like Tish (and that most women like Tish probably don’t have the same strong love of family that she had). But Fonny did know that love. Tish did know that love. And that, for now, will have to be enough.
It’s a pain that haunts you. A love that fills you. With If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has crafted a uniquely American masterpiece that will haunt and fill audiences with love for generations to come.