Film review: If Beale Street Could Talk (Director: Barry Jenkins)
By Sascha Krieger
Dream and reality: In the opening moments of Barry Jenkins‘ new film, they clash with a ferocious matter-of-factness that will make the unsuspecting viewer draw their breath. A quietly poetic apotheosis of love in warm colours and in almost otherworldly imagery gives way to the cold efficiency of a prison visitors area. The protagonists in both scenes are the same: 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny, lovers, soon-to-be parents, the latter falsely accused by a racist cop and a matching justice system of a rape he cannot have committed. the way, Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar triumph Moonlight, juxtaposes the two realities, the harsh one of racist America and the too-good-to-be-true variety of young love, so extraordinary and fragile when you happen to be black, invokes the same sense of poetic transcendence coupled with unapologetic realism that made Moonlight such a miracle. Like James Baldwin’s must-read book, the film intertwines both levels: the now in patient, matter-of-fact, quietly framed images exuding a kindness that comes from accepting reality, the same acceptance Tish’s family has learned and translates into a stubbornness that cannot fail to move; and the then, drenched in warmer, more fuzzy colours, driven by the dream-like music of Nicholas Brittell, that seems to be suspended somewhere in the in-between of love, and a gently dynamic imagery with camera zooming in, hovering above and around entangling its objects in a loving gaze that borders on the dream-like.
As the book, consistently narrated by a post-arrest Tish, the film looks back from the present into the past, slightly rose-colouring the latter, yet with wide-open and understanding eyes. Moving back and forth, it focuses on different aspects of love: the romantic, world-ignoring variety of unconditional commitment, fueled by hope for a new life and maybe even a new world – and the real, existential struggle to fight injustice, filled with the optimism of those who have nothing to be optimistic about. Love is, as the song says, all around: it’s always there with Tish and Fonny, expertly played with a finely reduced range by Kiki Layne and Stephan James, it’s in the looks and embraces and actions of Tish’s family (outstanding: Regina King as Tish’s determined mother Sharon, hardly far behind: Colman Domingo’s forceful father and Teyonah Parris‘ fierce sister), the violent despair of Fonny’s father Frank (Michael Beach) and the haunting tenderness of the conversations with big gentle Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), an old friend of Fonny’s, freshly released from prison where he, too, was incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit.
Slowly, gently, the two levels affect each other: as the reality of racism enters the lives of Tish and Fonny together, the imagery becomes bleaker, stiller, paler. And as the family finds strength in an impossible fight, their world turns more colourful, the light warmer, the camera more dynamic. Yet, separation persists as all attempts to loosen the knot fail. Sharon’s trip to Puerto Rico in an attempt to change the accuser’s testimony is a devastating clash of agents of hopelessness, pawns of oppression, played against each other but also existential life forces struggling for survival, neither of them to blame. While Jenkins‘ cuts and changes to the novel in this sequence somewhat reduce the emotional ambiguity of these scenes, he maintains its raw despair and the strains dignity is under when pushed to the limit. One of Baldwin’s great achievements in the book is that he does not play the blame game: the victim is never doubted when it comes to the question whether she was raped, she is a victim as is Fonny. The guilt lies elsewhere, in a sphere outside the characters‘ scope. The racist beat cop Bell is the only one of that world to appear and he only does so in fragmented flashbacks. The system the family is up against remains faceless – and unbeatable.
To make this clear is probably the purpose of the ending Jenkins adds to Baldwin’s open one. The film’s only weakness, it moves the story a little away from the immediacy of experience, both close and distant from a white viewer – likely to connect in a much rawer and more visceral way with black audiences – adds a conclusion where the main threat lay in the totalitarian violence emanating from enforced uncertainty, the system’s power to do anything it wants with those under its control. It is a small minus, quickly forgotten, in what is one of the most powerful films about what it means to try and live in a world that tries to exclude you in recent years, powerful because of its intimacy, its strictly personal perspective, its quiet perseverance. There is nothing spectacular about If Beale Street Could Talk (in this film entirely located in early 1970s‘ New York City, New Orleans‘ Beale Street as the home of jazz and Baldwins‘ family serves a symbol of black America) as there is nothing out of the ordinary about the story it tells – which is perhaps the most devastating thing about it. The film is an indictment by being a love letter: to its characters, their world, their struggles, their potential. And it is an attempt to make them visible, them who begin to be drawn again into the background in the comeback of open racism America is experiencing. Those society delegates to the shadows – or the prisons – step into the light and remain there. Because they belong. Such as Fonny, an aspiring sculptor, who we once see vision-like, working in a whirl of mist and dust. And an appeal for hope, love’s first-born child. Moving, haunting, funny and wrapping the viewer up in a blanket of warmth to keep away the cold. Another miracle, indeed.