If Beale Street Could Talk
A painfully present period piece on black life in America.
on Hulu and iTunes | 2018 | R | 2 hours
Genre: Period Drama, Adaptation, Melodrama
Why I watched: Oh, reader, I couldn't possibly count the reasons why I spent my Saturday morning watching If Beale Street Could Talk, not once, but twice. For now, I'll simply mention the film's trailer, which is how I initially came to fall in love with this movie. It's a perfect adaptation of director Barry Jenkins' devastatingly beautiful film, evoking both love and pain. (I teared up just now rewatching it.) And it had me hooked from the start.
You might also like: Both formally and thematically, Jenkins previous film Moonlight (2016, on Amazon) resembles his most recent one, If Beale Street Could Talk. Moonlight chronicles the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of a black, gay man Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes over the course of the film) growing up in Miami. Bonus: It features Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali. You should also consider reading James Baldwin's novel If Beale Street Could Talk, originally published in 1974. Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors, and that's really all I can say without writing paragraphs and paragraphs more. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay "Is James Baldwin America's Greatest Essayist.")
The film opens with an epigraph from James Baldwin, upon whose novel the film is based: "Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” Barry Jenkins's film dwells on this lineage, depicting it as simultaneously beautiful and steeped in pain, in the past and also in the present.
I don't have the words to describe the relationship between Clementine "Tish" Rivers (KiKi Lane) and Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), which anchors the non-linear plot of If Beale Street Could Talk. Their story is both romance and tragedy, visceral and cerebral, destined and ill-fated. We can feel the intensity of the childhood best friends' connection, through long takes and intense closeups of their facial expressions as they see one another in moments of bliss—holding hands on their first date, making love for the first time, renting their first apartment. But these moments of past joy are merely interjections into those of present pain. Fonny's unlawful arrest and their families' attempts to free him from prison punctuate their narrative, underscoring the softly lit romantic moments with a sense of impending devastation that brought me to tears more than once.
Tish is our narrator and its her point of view that we inhabit most frequently. (Baldwin's book is also from her perspective.) Her voice is strong and her words—Baldwin's words—are carefully chosen. Her sister tells her not to bow her head when she tells their parents she's become pregnant. Her words are the sonic reminder of that edict; she sounds mournful but unapologetic as she recounts her story, which is also Fonny's story and their families' story. Yet there are numerous sequences without narration, as well. Colorful images swirl to the sound of jazz. Mournful exchanges of silence provide breaks in dialogue. This is one of those narratives that couldn't be anything other than cinematic, such that one wonders at the miracle of the film's existence as an adaptation of a novel.
Black and white photos of slavery and police brutality interrupt the fictional story several times, reminding us that Baldwin's and Jenkin's projects are based in reality. "The game has been rigged and the courts see it through," Tish says. If you haven't seen it already, you should take the time to watch Ava Duvernay's documentary 13th (on Netflix) on the American prison system and the racism inherent therein. Although If Beale Street Could Talk offers a fictionalized version of how this plays out in the lives of a black couple—whose intellect and sense of self serves as a threat to white supremacy—it nonetheless carries with it a powerful factual depiction of inequality and the criminalization of black people in the United States.
While If Beale Street Could Talk was snubbed at this year's Academy Awards (in a year that a white savior narrative won and a homophobic film was nominated), Regina King brought home the well-deserved trophy for Best Supporting Actress. King plays Sharon Rivers, Tish's mother and Fonny's mother-in-law. Her performance isn't subtle, and it reminds me that Jenkins' film is as much a work of melodrama as it is art cinema. His characters' emotions are exaggerated, forging a visceral connection between your affect and theirs. I felt raw and spent after watching this film, like I was physically attached to Tish and Fonny, to Sharon and the other family members. I also felt their love for one another, a force that kept me going, just as it kept Tish going. "Love brought you here," Sharon reminds her daughter. "If you trusted love this far, don't panic now."
I fell hard for this film, and I hope you do, too.