There is no Beale Street in If Beale Street Could Talk, and that’s the point: when James Baldwin wrote the novel in 1974, the street name was a symbol for any street in any “black neighborhood,” a center of black population, exemplifying black culture and experience, in all its joy and grief, its glorious bravado up against its inherent oppression. That same universality pervades Barry Jenkins’ adaptation, a poem of pure cinema that ebbs with the regressive drain of a racist society and flows with the rising tide of love in all forms.
It’s a film replete with juxtapositions, divisions both grandiose and granular, from the seismic gulf between black and white, man and woman, to the minute differences that can result in a clash of opinion between next-door neighbors, folks who live on the same side of the street but who hold different values and have different goals. All of this conflict orbits around the budding relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who in one another find the sort of love that stops time, in which they find refuge from the world and can rest warmly in one another’s gaze. Such is the most powerful of Beale Street’s juxtapositions: the all-encompassing bubble of love floating in a universe that wants nothing other than to pop it.
Love is an amorphous beating heart in the film, a force that transcends time and space. As such, Jenkins’ screenplay gently bounces around a timeline that is defined but not confining. It exists in the world of these characters, which expands and constricts as they move and breathe. There are two very clear, controversial inciting incidents: Tish discovers she is pregnant, something that is shameful in the eyes of Fonny’s conservative, religious family; and Fonny is jailed on a rape allegation for which his alibi is very clear, the work of a law enforcement institution that is racist in its veins. But these developments don’t so much kick off a narrative so much as usher us into the environment these characters navigate. Tish narrates from a space above, guiding us through the brief history of her love story with Fonny, with several asides that lend insight into their divergent social circles and conflicting family structures, divisions that aren’t considered by the broader society, which generalizes and profiles people of color, stifling opportunity and then pouncing when the stifled are forced to find rogue methods of survival.
Politics run both local and global in If Beale Street Could Talk. The tightknit familial sphere operates within a self-contained environment, moving in alternating seasons of deep-rooted love and stern, uncompromising judgment. The shifts may seem turbulent but the balance is delicate, for the ever-present systemic oppression threatens to encroach at every turn. Tish and Fonny’s families have very different approaches for keeping their houses in order, but the goal is shared: maintain the appearance of staying above the fray, because the closer you get to the edge, the easier it is to become a sacrifice to the system.
The film maintains that dual focus right down to its very construction, a swirl of traditional narrative and observational character study, with pointed social commentary in the margins. The content represents a fusion of Baldwin’s work as both a teller of tales and speaker of truths, and Jenkins maintains that integrity while moving it into the cinematic realm with impeccable artistry. Working with cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins captures image after image of such intense formal beauty that they should be featured in textbooks two decades from now. Draped in romantic light, pillowed in shadows, and scored brilliantly by composer Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk is a cinematic elegy to the beautiful, fleeting pockets of humanity to savor in the tumult of life, and specifically life as black person in racist America. We’ve seen quite a few racial polemics this year, from BlacKkKlansman to The Hate U Give to Sorry to Bother You, each its own unique piece in the cinematic puzzle of racial injustice in America. If Beale Street Could Talk sidesteps the polemical route, allowing its characters to bask in the gaze and gauze of love even as the same unforgiving world still spins just outside. Make no mistake, it’s not naïve – this is a story that sees the broken and rigged system, that acknowledges how the deck is stacked, but also refuses to ignore the moments of grace, the safe havens that shelter the soul, even if only for a moment. In the constant torment of the world, it’s easy to forget that the beautiful moments matter, too. If Beale Street Could Talk understands the tragic reality but also understands the beauty in the crevices.