If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Written & Directed by Barry Jenkins
Tish is in an incredibly tough spot. Her boyfriend Fonny has been arrested and accused of a rape he didn’t commit. Now Tish has found out she is pregnant with his child. Everything feels impossible as she gathers up the courage to tell she and Fonny’s families. Money is crucial because the family needs every resource they have to pay legal costs to prove Fonny’s innocence, working against a system that was stacked against them before they were born. The film cuts back and forth between the present struggle and the early days of Tish and Fonny’s love story, showing us why they fight so desperately to regain the future that is being stolen from them.
If Beale Street Could Talk is writer-director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up movie to 2016’s masterwork Moonlight. That is a tough act to follow. Jenkins adapts the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, whom I suspect would have adored Moonlight and its presentation of the sexual awakening of an African-American gay man. Jenkins opens Beale street with a message from Baldwin and closes with the note “for Jimmy,” so it is apparent that he has much reverence for the author. There’s so much reverence for the material, raising it to poetic and hallowed heights, that the film loses the rawness of humanity somewhere.
The cinematography, crafted by Jenkins and James Laxton is richer uses a much warmer palette of colors than Moonlight. While the earlier film used Miami neon and crisp blue tones, Beale Street is all about earthy colors: reds, yellows, browns. There’s the sense of perpetual autumn on screen, a perfect scheme when presenting a heightened New York City. This is not the same NYC Baldwin describes in the novel: “New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying.” We don’t see the hell of Baldwin’s world on the screen; instead, Jenkins focuses on through the eyes of his protagonists. That adds to the beauty of the picture but detracts from the struggle these characters are fighting against. Moreover, that lack of strife is what personally kept me from having an emotional connection with Tish and Fonny.
There are some of the best scenes of Jenkins’ career in this movie though. I always think back to Moonlight and that sad moment between Little and Juan, when the young boy asks the man about his line of work and the effect that has had on Little’s mother. Beale Street has two scenes that reach those heights. The first is a vignette that involved Fonny running into Daniel, an older friend who’s been out of prison for a short time. It starts as two friends cracking jokes and drinking beers and then the conversation turns to Daniel’s time inside. After this scene, my first thought was, “Barry Jenkins would make one hell of a horror film.” Through actor Bryan Tyree Henry’s performance and Nicholas Britell’s score, such a dark picture is painted of life in prison without a single detail being disclosed. Henry’s face and the music tell us everything we need to know, and I suspect we would please with them not to tell us. The line that acts as a hammer is, “They can do anything they want to you.”
The second scene that resonates with me is a meeting between Sharon, Tish’s mother, and Victoria, the Puerto Rican woman who was pressured into identifying Fonny. The dynamics of the scene is that you have two women who both want different things and are unable to communicate. The emotions surrounding their respective conflicts (Sharon wanting Fonny out, Victoria wanted to run away from re-experiencing her rape) cause the dialogue to break down as the scene carries on. Jenkins’ makes sure neither woman is framed as the villain, that both of them have very relevant and urgent points of view. There’s just no way that anything constructive can come out of this exchange. The actresses, Regina King and Emily Rios, play the events out in heart-shattering beauty.
The parts of Beale Street that disconnected me most involve the development of Tish and Fonny’s love story. Yes, the camera work is gorgeous, and the music frames things perfectly, but Jenkins almost seems afraid to let this love be a real living thing. Their first sex scene together is presented with such sanctification and holiness that it falls more into those cliched lovemaking scenes of the past. There is no charm of awkward fumbling that is present in these moments, that would endear us to this couple more. It’s so beautiful to the point of being hollow.
Additionally, we never see those natural arguments or troubles a young couple goes through until Fonny is arrested. I can’t help but think a real misunderstanding between these two and seeing how they rebuild their love, how they have to actively remind themselves and each other of why they are together would then add to the more significant challenges of saving Fonny from the prison system. Tish and Fonny ultimately become unreal and one-dimensional.
If Beale Street Could Talk has made me add James Baldwin to my reading list, something that becomes more unwieldy by the year. From reading others critiques of the film, I am finding myself intrigued with seeing what Jenkins was unable to capture on the screen, those elements of Baldwin’s wit that couldn’t move from one medium to the other. By no means is Beale Street a lousy movie, it feels like Jenkins was overly present and didn’t allow for the freedom of his actors to explore as he did in Moonlight. Beale Street is so precise and posed that I kept wishing I could see these characters for who they are.