Directed by Barry Jenkins
If Beale Street Could Talk certainly wears its heart on its sleeve. Barry Jenkins’ follow up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight seems to pick up where that one left off, opening on two characters as if we’ve known them our whole lives. They are Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends and now young lovers in 1974 Harlem. They will conceive a child which he won’t learn about until after his incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit.
The film jumps around in time, showing us how Tish and Fonny first got together only after we’ve seen him in prison. That sense of doom, of knowing how this all ends up, hangs over the entire film. There will be efforts made by Tish and her family, including a brief trek out to Puerto Rico, to try and clear Fonny’s name, but it shouldn’t much surprise you that it doesn’t work out. Instead this is a long visual poem about love, suffering and family. The story is less about plot or even character mechanizations and progressions and rather just a moving portrait of people finding the strength to endure.
The first mage we see is of Tish and Fonny from a bird’s eye view above. The heavy strings of an Oscar-nominated Nicholas Britell score carries us in, as if we need to play catch up. The two characters are already lost deep in each other’s eyes, and when they look at the camera it’s clear soon we will be too.
The movie makes sure to establish what they have before we see it taken away, and then to juxtapose that almost angelic sense of affection with the heinously unfair criminal court system in which African American men are rushed through so quickly as to ensure a certain number of false incarcerations. The story here is never about how Fonny came to be arrested, whether he may be guilty (as other movies would’ve perpetuated the mystery) or whether he may even get back his freedom. Instead it seems pretty clear early on how this will end.
If Beale Street Could Talk makes you reckon with such a rigged game. We are made to feel both the intense adoration shared by Tish and Fonny and then the absolute horror of what it means to be Black in this time and place and, of course, still today.
In one of the more enthralling sequences, Brian Tyree Henry plays a friend of Fonny’s who has recently been released from prison, having been stuck there for an exaggerated crime and a bloated sentence. He is at first a confident, vocal man who soon grows quiet and more haunted as he explains how frightened he was. It really is him describing the plot of a horror movie, just like the one we know Fonny will soon find himself in.
The movie is a push and pull, or really an ebb and flow, between melancholic grace and injustice. The music from the start is lathered in such melancholia, as if from the get go this is a eulogy for the relationship between Tish and Fonny as it could be and a pronouncement of what it now must be.
Jenkins’ film will often detour from the narrative to show old stills from this time period that help make clear his point. It’s an effect Mike Mills’ films (Beginners, 20th Century Women) utilize, and it’s an effective way of setting the scene, of making sure we know that though these are just characters, they are real people in a real time and place.
The whole film, in fact, is told with a sense of urgency. Like with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and its Charlottesville epilogue, If Beale Street Could Talk makes sure we understand some of these domestic atrocities that have become so mundane. Even though it has a much different tone, Ted Demme’s Life (1999) does a similar thing, taking the improper arrest of the Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence characters and showing how they are forced to adapt to life in prison. At a certain point they quit trying to escape and just deal with what they’ve forcibly had taken away. What is sensational and unfair in the first act is made institutional in the second and third.
So Barry Jenkins’ movie reckons with this duality, that something like this was ever even possible. The degree to which Tish and Fonny are made to be, in a sense, perfect only helps underscore their mistreatment. They shouldn’t have to be perfect, of course, but such a depiction helps make the movie’s message clear. It’s a similar framing of the main character, Cleo, in Roma. She is effectively a modern day saint in 1970 Mexico City, forced to deal with a few trying circumstances but never exactly fighting back. She just endures.
This movie will end with Tish and her young son visiting Fonny in prison. It’s a kind portrait of the family, though of course made both ironic and devastating by the sterile metal box they find themselves in. The hope comes from the hope of the main characters. To endure, as they are, is to resist.
Up Next: Vice (2018), Traffic (2000), Post Tenebras Lux (2012)