There comes a film every once in a while for which words cannot do justice in describing; a film so clearly and undeniably charged with energy and passion that trying to look at it with a ‘critical’ eye seems almost reductive of its artistry. If Beale Street Could Talk is one of those films.
Based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name and brought to life by Barry Jenkins, the film is an exploration of love, race and justice in 1970s Harlem. It is a time capsule into an America that’s both incredibly different and eerily recognisable today; it’s a work of fiction exploring broad notions of what constitutes love, but it’s also a piece of history in itself — one that’s far too familiar.
Beale Street is a work of romance, and it belongs to a section of cinematic romance that has lain dormant for a long time. This is not an idealized, quirky rom-com of errors or a contrived journey to a happy ending; it’s a true romance. Like its characters, the film is intimate but withdrawn, easing both us and its core romance into their relationship, not glossing over or ‘over-romanticizing’ their encounters or interactions, which range from endearingly awkward to achingly tense.
‘Realistic’ and ‘relatable’ are terms that are often thrown at films like this, ones that forego the glossy set-pieces and overwrought monologues that constitute a classic ‘cinematic’ romance, in favour of a more grounded, genuine show of affection, and while Beale Street may fit those criteria, it’s so much more too. To call what Jenkins brings to the genre simply ‘relatable’ would be a disservice; he translates a level of tenderness and warmth to the screen that only the most cynical of viewers could reject, with primal and undeniable love pulsing throughout this film.
The romance at the centre of Beale Street is between Tish and Fonny, played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James respectively. Layne’s breakout big-screen performance is terrific, serving as the audience’s window into this period and this relationship through narration, flashbacks and the occasional documentary-style recap. Tish is timid but incredibly devoted, a palpable air of passion delivered through every fevered glance and line delivery. James emanates a level of warmth and charm unseen in even the heyday of Hollywood’s leading men, but also a deep vulnerability and visible fear once Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
Of course, Jenkins, Layne and James are not alone in bringing Baldwin’s vision to life for Beale Street. Jenkins’ assembled team of incredibly talented artists create a film so passionately and invigoratingly crafted in every facet of its being. The supporting cast is the perfect line-up of diverse and immensely emotive personalities, with particular praise to Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry. Cinematographer James Laxton shot the film with a degree of creative vigour and skill, his use of colour and gorgeous close-ups of his actors creating a distinct aesthetic. Composer Nicholas Britell created a score unlike any other this year too, one stooped in tension but all the while sweepingly romantic and joyful. Jenkins’ A-list cast and crew carve out the film from merely being a literary adaptation to being a work of art of its own accord; one oozing with the passion and creativity of its creators.
These glimpses into Fonny’s prison life are, of course, our window into the film’s other beating heart; one that brings us right into the core of the United States’ deep and intensely complex relationship with race and justice. Beale Street is a tale of prejudices and setbacks, one in which our characters constantly suffer at the hands of an institution that’s rotten to its core, but somehow it never becomes a tale of misery or hopelessness.
It’s important to note that the film doesn’t sugar-coat the state of America’s racial tensions; its issues cannot be offset by the help of a benevolent ‘white saviour’ along the lines of this year’s Green Book — racism is a systematic, ingrained institution of the United States — one that has existed for years and continues to persist. Jenkins, however, has clearly taken note of the pervasiveness of tragedy in the cinematic history of African Americans, and he seeks to bring some light to a history so stooped in darkness. Even the lowest moments of Beale Street can break your heart, but the film will never let you lose sight of what’s right.
The care taken and affection shown towards maintaining this tone and thematic resonance stem from the fact that when it comes to race, Jenkins is making yet another love letter: this one for the black population of America. It’s a deeply personal message that’s perhaps less relatable for a white audience this side of the Atlantic, but still undeniably powerful. The first words of Beale Street lay out the significance of its name through a quote from Baldwin himself, in reference to the New Orleans street of the same name: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”
Of course, much of its tremendous impact is owed to the film’s progenitor James Baldwin, who laid the groundwork for artistically exploring the black experience in America and created the tragic, heart-wrenching and inspiring tale of Fonny and Tish after seeing far too many of the same cases. However, Jenkins, his cast and his wonderful team of true artists create a work that both honours Baldwin’s contribution and transcends his material onto a cinematic pedestal that not many could have achieved.
Following Jenkins’ Best Picture win for Moonlight in 2017’s Academy Awards, his last examination of prejudice, love and identity for black Americans, Beale Street’s almost complete exclusion from this year’s nominations is all the more baffling. In a race becoming more controversial by the day, and with less of a clear or even morally acceptable winner emerging by the usual standards, it once again begs the question of how a film like this can be ignored.
After all, in an age of intolerance, prejudice and declining romance, If Beale Street Could Talk represents everything we need in the world right now.
Image: Rob Croes / Anefo via Wikimedia Commons