When tackling issues of racial injustice and inequality, the default emotions we run with are typically outrage and anger. These emotions run hot and are a lot easier to harness as motivation for activism and action. However the drawback is that they also burn fast, leaving us depleted and burnt out as quickly as we are ignited. In Barry Jenkins’ newest feature If Beale Street Could Talk, he confronts us with the same issues of racial injustice and equality but he asks us to approach them through the lens of love. Love proves to be a much more sustainable and life-giving emotion to with which to approach our broken humanity, but If Beale Street Could Talk also reminds us that love can be devastating. In this way this adaptation of James Baldwin’s work perfectly evokes his words, “Every poet is an optimist, but on the way to that optimism you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.”
At the heart of this lyrical movie is Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), a young black couple who find themselves attempting to build a life together in New York in the 1970s and then find themselves ripped out of each other’s arms as Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. From there the movie non-linearly moves back and forth, showcasing on the one hand the tragedy and injustice at the heart of the criminal justice system as Tish and her family come up against obstacle after obstacle trying to get Fonny exonerated. But the movie also turns back the clock to show the birth of Tish and Fonny’s love for each other, with the enormous power of this movie coming from the stark juxtaposition between their past and present.
We have seen people fall in love numerous times in movies. In fact one can argue that it is one of the central hallmarks of the art form. But so often what we see in the movies is an approximation of love, stripped to its bare minimal essentials, focusing on more exterior feelings like attraction, chemistry, and lust. What Jenkins does in Beale Street however is different. In our wanderings with Tish and Fonny he forces us to dwell with this couple, to observe closely the minuscule moments that are the tiny building blocks of the relationship, the kind that can build a long and sustainable love. Framed by the transcendent cinematography of James Laxton and the meditative score Nicolas Britell, Barry Jenkins crafts an impressionistic tapestry of this couple that borders on canonizatio. Just like the great master Yasujiro Ozu, Jenkins often frames Tish and Fonny so they speak directly to the camera, intimately inviting us into their private lives and asking us to meditate on the unique mysteries of their humanity. We understand why they might fall in love with each other, because we are invited to fall in love with them too. We are invited to gaze into their love-struck eyes and bathe in their radiance, to see the minor imperfections on their faces and to realize those imperfections are beautiful.
These moments of intimate and swooning tenderness are essential, because the unjust and racist realities of their larger world intrusively breaks the simple and idyllic serenity of their personal Eden. Their love for each other is so pure that it transcends the racist order of 1970s America, and that immediately renders them a threat to that racist order. When the hammer predictably falls, Jenkins treat it as a sobering wake-up call first for Tish and Fonny, and then for us. The fullness of life that we experience walking with Tish and Fonny makes the cruelty and unfairness of their suffering even more tragic; we feel deeply their outrage and anger and frustration and pain, but only because we have also felt the purity of their joy first.
Softening the blow of the movie’s brutal world are the moments of grace and hope sprinkled throughout. Many of these moments are of course provided by Tish and Fonny, but they are sprinkled throughout in the superb supporting cast. Tish’s parents Sharon and Joseph, each wonderful in their own way, are profoundly embodied by Regina King and Colman Domingo. King in particular delivers a maternal performance of such subtlety, authenticity, and warmth that it feels almost impossible to think as a moment of acting (and her Oscar nomination is well earned). Even the merest cameo of performances are gripping such as Brian Tyree Henry’s appearance as Fonny childhood friend who delivers a tour-de-force monologue of the dehumanizing power of being a convicted criminal that is as chilling as it is impressive.
It seems impossible that this is the first English-language adaptation of James Baldwin’s prose, yet Jenkins ensures that Baldwin’s voice is as relevant as ever. Wisely getting out of the way of Baldwin’s prose, he instead creates the canvas for us to ruminate on the wordsmith’s thoughts. Early on Tish remarks, “It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.” Jenkins’ accomplishment is in showing us the breadth and depth of that miracle, in all its joy and heartache, so that in spite of the oppressive darkness that permeates so much of Tish and Fonny’s journey the overwhelming feeling If Beale Street Could Talk imparts is a deep hope.
With If Beale Street Could Talk Jenkins proves that his tour-de-force directing effort in Moonlight was no one-off. Instead he has achieved a marvelous thing. In the space of two years Jenkins has crafted two of the best movies of the 21st century so far, a sentiment that I am confident will hold up at the end of this century. In doing so Jenkins has established himself as one of the best American directors of his generation and firmly in the category of “appointment viewing”.
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Written by Barry Jenkins
Starring Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanae Ellis, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Emily Rios, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco.