If Beale Street Could Talk
“The audience sees Tish and Fonny as they see each other: fully realized, at the center of their world, and as people deserving of love.”
Title: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Director: Barry Jenkins 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Original book by James Baldwin 👨🏾🇺🇸🌈 and screenplay by Barry Jenkins 👨🏾🇺🇸
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
If anyone is capable of doing justice to James Baldwin’s novel, and transforming his gorgeous words into a stunning visual experience, it’s Barry Jenkins. With the Academy Award-winning Moonlight, the director proved he knows how to tell a love story—and a queer Black love story, no less.
In If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins transports us to New York City in the early 1970s, to Baldwin’s Harlem and Greenwich Village. Beale Street opens with bright yellows and lush greens, colors that indicate optimism and vibrancy. The palette is, in some ways, a stark contrast to the bleak reality following the Civil Rights Movement. The influence of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai is evident here, as it was in Jenkins’ last feature: he complements the saturated canvas with an emotive score filled with strings, which the composer Nicholas Britell equates to an “expression of love.” Appropriately, the first track entitled “Eden (Harlem)” affirms the setting as a place where the romance between 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) could thrive.
But they can’t stay in paradise—their childhood homes—forever. Like other artists of his day, Fonny, a sculptor, makes his way downtown and finds himself in the Village. In this diverse bohemia, he hopes to avoid the fate his peers who, without economic opportunities, end up either incarcerated or dead. Tish, a young woman coming into her own, follows out of love. She’s also having Fonny’s baby. They plan to start a family together but their foray into downtown Manhattan also means they have difficulty finding a white landlord who will rent to a Black couple. Tish endures unrelenting, racialized sexual harassment, and Fonny’s attempts to defend her land him in the unfortunate crosshairs of Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), a racist cop with a score to settle.
The use of archival images interspersed in Tish’s first-person narration provides historical context, but it also risks feeling pedantic at times. Likewise, Jenkins’ decision to add an epilogue arguably diminishes the ambivalence of the original ending. But perhaps in our own politically troubled era, it seemed important to establish an explicit link between the past and the present. The film works best when it remains faithful to Baldwin’s slice-of-life story about the impact of pervasive racism on the everyday lives of Black people—in this case, two young lovers and their families. Yes, the overt tragedy lies in the injustice of Fonny’s wrongful arrest. But more than that, it lies in all the little ways these individuals get boxed in, even as they fight to assert their free will.
The story is told primarily through Tish’s eyes and, in that respect, unfolds like a coming-of-age tale. We witness her blossoming sexuality, as well as other adult choices she increasingly faces. Being a love story, the narrative predominantly revolves around her relationship with Fonny. As would have been common at the time, we see her fulfill many gendered expectations, including willingly assuming the roles of a wife and mother. Nevertheless, her rich inner life shines through.
Some of the most poignant moments extend from Tish’s relationship with her parents. In particular, her mother Sharon (Regina King) becomes a vital source of support to Tish, who otherwise experiences her unplanned pregnancy alone while Fonny awaits trial behind bars. Sharon urges Tish to be strong for the baby-to-come. On the one hand, it’s a tender moment that acknowledges the fortitude a Black mother passes on to her daughter and pays tribute to that legacy. But on the other, it’s heartbreakingly clear that Tish’s childhood has come to an end.
Also worth noting is how the film treats sexual assault without placing blame on the survivor nor sensationalizing her trauma. Far from being reductive, the storyline takes pains to unpack how colonialism and white supremacy contribute to rape culture.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 55% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Critics have lauded Beale Street for honoring Baldwin’s vision of Black love. What’s remarkable is how Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton achieve this through the camera’s gaze, which from the very first scene lingers on Tish and Fonny as they look at each other. The audience sees them as they see each other: fully realized, at the center of their world, and as people deserving of love.
In a departure from movies that prioritize the white gaze—seen notably in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit or even Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, to a certain extent—the film does not rely on inflicting physical violence on Black bodies to make a point. When Fonny’s friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) recounts his time in prison, the horror is not illustrated through the details of what happened or what he saw while he was in there, but rather in how the experience has left him utterly changed. So even as we witness how the world repeatedly fails these characters through unfair systems, the film refuses to regard them as anything but beautifully human.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.67/5
It’s tempting to view Beale Street as mere political commentary. Certainly, it has a lot to say about racial politics in both Baldwin’s time and our own. But such a limited evaluation would miss Jenkins’ artistry. For Fonny, too, is an artist. And even while he’s in jail, the film reminds us of that with a dreamlike flashback: Fonny in a darkened studio, chipping away at his craft. It’s in that moment that we understand how his art and his survival are deeply intertwined.