If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins’s second film. It is a staggering piece of craftsmanship that announces firmly and full-throated the arrival of an American Master. I say, master, not as hyperbole or as some tossed out word with little thought of its implications.
Barry Jenkins is a vital voice in American film and he has become so after only three films. Moonlight being his last, which stands as a near perfect cinematic tone poem about love, regret, and desire. If Beale Street Could Talk is flawed, in some areas, deeply so, about black lives and their lived experiences.
Flawed though it may be, it is absorbing and hypnotic. Jenkins draws out time within a scene letting the sensuality and depth of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny’s (Stephano James) emotions saturate the screen and seep out into the audience. At its heart If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story tinged with tragedy and simmering anger.
Based on the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, Jenkins seems to be a near perfect match for the material. Baldwin is one of the great intellectuals of the past century as well as an author of great empathy and intelligence. One of Baldwin’s great talents is how he transforms his roiling rage into what appears to be a patient exhaustive explanation. Another is letting that rage break free.
But Baldwin’s rage is rarely just performative. It is a deeply wounded, hurt, and resigned anger at a country that he calls home that has, since the day he was born, tried to murder him in some way or another. Jenkins takes that anger-that love-that compassionate empathy-and paints a vibrant and pulsating picture of lived black experiences.
Fonny and Tish have known each other all their lives. Eventually, they discover that they love each other. Like all great tragedies, something happens and the two lovers are separated when Fonny is arrested for a crime he could not have possibly committed. He is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman at a time and place it was not physically possible for him to be at. The film is a tragedy in which Fonny and Tish’s blackness are intricately woven into every aspect of their story.
Most movies feel as if they were shot and are being projected onto the screen, as indeed they are. But some movies, some directors, are able to make this seem almost magical. If Beale Street Could Talk moves at a deliberately slow pace. Like Baldwin, Jenkins demands us to ruminate and to immerse ourselves in the moment. Jenkins all but dares us to go into a transcendental state and truly understand the depth of the hurt and pain at the core of these character’s lives.
When Fonny meets an old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) he is overjoyed. Tish cooks them a meal as the two men talk about their lives. The conversation drifts from catching up to being black in America. Fonny argues that America hates blacks while Daniel confesses he has just gotten out of jail for confessing to a crime he did not commit.
The conversation drips with confusion, sadness, and a sort of forgone helplessness.“White devil” is a term often used as joke now and days. But Jenkins allows us to see just how accurate the term really is both then and now.
Brian Tyree Henry seems to be everywhere right now. He was menacing and desperate in Widows. In Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse he was the voice of Miles Morale’s father, whose love for his son poured through with his every syllable. He also had a bit part in Hotel Artemis as the brother who seemed destined to make wrong choices.
His presence in If Beale Street Could Talk is brief. He has one scene but it is a pivotal and memorable one. His monologue about Daniel’s arrest and life after prison ranks among one of the best scenes of the year. He imbues such a complete and rich spectrum of emotion with every line; it is a riveting performance rooted in heart-aching disbelief.
But this is what Jenkins excels at. The emotions are not just things we see the characters feel. They become very real and almost overwhelming for us as well. Like the joy of Tish telling her family of her pregnancy.
We feel relief as they respond with smiles. Tish’s anxiety, and ours, dissipate. Her mother Sharon (Regina King) and father Joseph (Colman Domingo) are overjoyed. They break out the whiskey and celebrate.
Fonny is in jail for rape, and Tish is pregnant with his baby. Yet, there is joy in this house. Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), Tish’s older sister is overcome with emotion at the announcement. It is made clear to both Tish and we the audience that no matter what happens, she will not be raising her child alone.
By itself, the scene captures a family in a moment of hope and happiness. But the scene afterward in which we meet Fonny’s family and in particular his evangelical Mother it becomes something altogether more complicated.
Class, religion, and love come crashing together in a blistering exchange of words and personalities. The scene between the two families is both tense, explosive, and somewhat exhausting.
Regina King and Colman Domingo communicate with grins and glances that bring their character’s marriage to life. They each have a scene in which they show the depth of their love for Tish although the scenes end with differing realizations.
We speak a lot of empathy when writing and talking about films. Yet, I find so few people really understand what we mean. Baldwin and Jenkins understand. For almost any other storyteller the rape survivor would be faceless or ignored. But by making Victoria (Emily Rios) a character within her own right they give the survivor a voice of her own.
Victoria runs back to Puerto Rico after Fonny is arrested. Stranded in prison while each new development brings delay after delay Fonny becomes nervous and afraid. Tish’s mother Sharon, goes to Puerto Rico to find Victoria. She finds the man who is helping her put herself back together Pietro (Pedro Pascal).
Pietro refuses to let Sharon see Victoria. She begs and pleads as she argues Fonny’s innocence. “Do you believe he did it?” She asks. Pietro shrugs. His response and the scene afterward between Sharon and Victoria is what we mean by empathy. Characters are allowed to feel what they feel without judgment from the storyteller and without being framed as anything as simplistic as good or bad. Instead, they are as we are, inexpressibly human.
I haven’t mentioned much about Layne or James but do not take that as an indictment. Layne’s Tish is an open beating heart in love with the world and stunned by the ugliness and violence she encounters. I read somewhere once the hardest part of any romantic film, comedy or otherwise, is the “look”. The look meaning how the two people in love look at each other. Bradley Cooper had it in A Star Is Born. Layne and James have it here.
The way the two look at each other is a whirlwind of fresh discovery and tender memories. Rarely has a couple on film looked and felt so in love. Jenkins and James Laxton shoot the movie with soft edges and bright colors allowing the movie to feel as if the thing itself was an embodiment of Fonny and Tisha’s love.
Laxton and Jenkins shoot Fonny and Tish’s first time together in shadows, backlit by an orange lamp. Their bodies pressed together; their faces ripe with nerves and apprehension. Most sex scenes are filmed for erotic purposes or as comedic humiliation. If Beale Street Could Talk instead gives us a sex scene so intimate and aching we feel embarrassed for watching. It is as if we are seeing a private intimate moment as opposed to some cleverly edited and photographed spectacle. Though in its own way it is.
You might be wondering where are the flaws I talked about so much? Well for one the story feels unmoored. Jenkins adapted the book himself and to be fair Baldwin is known for his sprawling themes. His stories have a lot to say and span an ocean of lived experiences but don’t really have any sort of narrative momentum.
Which is fine. As much as I am loathed to talk about poetry, it is one of the closest art-forms to the cinema. Like poetry, movies don’t necessarily have to follow a narrative. Though it may seem aimless it never feels as if it is. If Beale Street Could Talk explores issues forthrightly in the only way it can by putting them in a human context. It may not be the tightest script but it is utterly absorbing as it gives us characters to care about, root for, and understand.
More than any other director working today Barry Jenkins understands movies are about empathy and images. Jenkins just so happens to use those two things in conjunction with his blackness. His movies are about black characters and black lives and the tsunami of turmoil that comes with being black in America.
I fear we have broken film down into easily digestible binary experiences. Some films are; but other films, like If Beale Street Could Talk, stay with us like dreams. It lingers in our mind’s eye refusing to leave; reminding us of our complexities and our failings-but also our capacity for love.